Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is an endogenous steroid that blocks carcinogenesis, retards aging, and exerts antiproliferative properties. In vitro, it is a potent inhibitor of glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, the first committed step of the pentose phosphate pathway. In man, serum levels of DHEA and its sulfate peak in early adulthood and drop markedly with age. Epidemiologic evidence indicates that low levels of DHEA or its sulfate conjugate are linked to an increased risk of developing cancer or of death from cardiovascular disease. Like cancer, atherosclerosis is a proliferative process characterized by both initiation and promotion phases. This similarity provided a framework in which to study the antiatherogenic effects of DHEA. Rabbits were randomly assigned to four groups. Two groups of rabbits received aortic endothelial injury by baloon catheter and were fed a 2% cholesterol diet for 12 wk. DHEA, 0.5% was incorporated into the diet of one group receiving the 2% cholesterol diet and endothelial injury and also into the diet of one of the control groups. Animals were killed after 12 wk and aortas, hearts, and livers were studied. Plasma samples were analyzed for total cholesterol, VLDL, LDL, HDL, triglycerides, DHEA, and DHEA-sulfate levels. The atherogenic insult resulted in severe atherosclerosis in animals not treated with DHEA. In those receiving DHEA there was an almost 50% reduction in plaque size (P = 0.006), inversely related to the serum level of DHEA attained. Fatty infiltration of the heart and liver were also markedly reduced. These beneficial actions were not attributable to differences in body weight gain, food intake, total plasma cholesterol or distribution of cholesterol among the VLDL, LDL, or HDL fractions. The results show that high levels of plasma DHEA inhibit the development of atherosclerosis and they provide an important experiment link to the epidemiologic studies correlating low DHEA-sulfate plasma levels with an enhanced risk of cardiovascular mortality.
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