Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is not a hormone but it is a very important prohormone secreted in large amounts by the adrenals in humans and other primates, but not in lower species. It is secreted in larger quantities than cortisol and is present in the blood at concentrations only second to cholesterol. All the enzymes required to transform DHEA into androgens and/or estrogens are expressed in a cell-specific manner in a large series of peripheral target tissues, thus permitting all androgen-sensitive and estrogen-sensitive tissues to make locally and control the intracellular levels of sex steroids according to local needs. This new field of endocrinology has been called intracrinology. In women, after menopause, all estrogens and almost all androgens are made locally in peripheral tissues from DHEA which indirectly exerts effects, among others, on bone formation, adiposity, muscle, insulin and glucose metabolism, skin, libido and well-being. In men, where the secretion of androgens by the testicles continues for life, the contribution of DHEA to androgens has been best evaluated in the prostate where about 50% of androgens are made locally from DHEA. Such knowledge has led to the development of combined androgen blockade (CAB), a treatment which adds a pure anti-androgen to medical (GnRH agonist) or surgical castration in order to block the access of the androgens made locally to the androgen receptor. In fact, CAB has been the first treatment demonstrated to prolong life in advanced prostate cancer while recent data indicate that it can permit long-term control and probably cure in at least 90% of cases of localized prostate cancer. The new field of intracrinology or local formation of sex steroids from DHEA in target tissues has permitted major advances in the treatment of the two most frequent cancers, namely breast and prostate cancer, while its potential use as a physiological HRT could well provide a physiological balance of androgens and estrogens, thus offering exciting possibilities for women's health at menopause.
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