11β-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-HSD) catalyses the metabolism of corticosterone to inert 11-dehydrocorticosterone, thus preventing glucocorticoid access to otherwise non-selective renal mineralocorticoid receptors (MRs), producing aldosterone selectivity in vivo. At least two isoforms of 11β-HSD exist. One isoform (11β-HSD1) has been purified from rat liver and an encoding cDNA cloned from a rat liver library. Transfection of rat 11β-HSD1 cDNA into amphibian cells with a mineralocorticoid phenotype encodes 11 β-reductase activity (activation of inert 11-dehydrocorticosterone) suggesting that 11β-HSD1 does not have the necessary properties to protect renal MRs from exposure to glucocorticoids. This function is likely to reside in a second 11β-HSD isoform. 11β-HSD1 is co-localized with glucocorticoid receptors (GRs) and may modulate glucocorticoid access to this receptor type. To examine the predominant direction of 11β-HSD1 activity in intact mammalian cells, and the possible role of 11β-HSD in regulating glucocorticoid access to GRs, we transfected rat 11β-HSD1 cDNA into a mammalian kidney-derived cell system (COS-7) which has little endogenous 11β-HSD activity or mRNA expression.
Homogenates of COS-7 cells transfected with increasing amounts of 11β-HSD cDNA exhibited a dose-related increase in 11 β-dehydrogenase activity. In contrast, intact cells did not convert corticosterone to 11-dehydrocorticosterone over 24 h, but showed a clear dose-related 11β-reductase activity, apparent within 4 h of addition of 11-dehydrocorticosterone to the medium. To demonstrate that this reflected a change in functional intracellular glucocorticoids, COS-7 cells were co-transfected with an expression vector encoding GR and a glucocorticoid-inducible MMTV-LTR luciferase reporter construct, with or without 11β-HSD. Corticosterone induced MMTV-LTR luciferase expression in the presence or absence of 11β-HSD. 11-Dehydrocorticosterone was without activity in the absence of 11β-HSD, but induced MMTV-LTR luciferase activity in the presence of 11β-HSD. These results indicate that rat 11β-HSD1 can behave exclusively as a reductase in intact mammalian cells. Thus in some tissues in vivo, 11β-HSD1 may regulate ligand access to GRs by reactivating inert glucocorticoids.