Role of female sex hormones in mast cell behavior

Role of female sex hormones, estradiol and progesterone, in mast cell behavior

Oliver Zierau1, Ana C. Zenclussen2 and Federico Jensen2*
  • 1 Molecular Cell Physiology and Endocrinology, Institute of Zoology, Technische Universität Dresden, Dresden, Germany
  • 2 Experimental Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Medical Faculty, Otto-von-Guericke-University, Magdeburg, Germany

Female sex hormones have long been suspected to have an effect on mast cell (MC) behavior. This assumption is based on the expression of hormone receptors in MCs as well as on the fact that many MC-related pathophysiological alterations have a different prevalence in females than in males. Further, serum IgE levels are much higher in allergic female mice compared to male mice. Ovariectomized rats developed less airway inflammation compared to sham controls. Following estrogen replacement ovariectomized rats re-established airway inflammation levels’ found in intact females. In humans, a much higher asthma prevalence was found in women at reproductive age as compared to men. Serum levels of estradiol and progesterone have been directly correlated with the clinical and functional features of asthma. Around 30–40% of women who have asthma experienced worsening of their symptoms during the perimenstrual phase, the so-called perimenstrual asthma. Postmenopausal women receiving hormone replacement therapy have an increased risk of new onset of asthma. Beside, estrus cycle dependent changes on female sex hormones are related to changes on MC number in mouse uterine tissue and estradiol and progesterone were shown to induce uterine MC maturation and degranulation. We will discuss here the currently available information concerning the role of these female sex hormones on MC behavior.


Mast cells (MCs) belong to the innate-compartment of the immune system and are widely known for their role in allergic reactions via their binding to IgE receptor (Alvarez-Errico et al., 2009). MCs are a common cellular component of both connective and mucosal tissues (Kitamura and Ito, 2005). Beside this, MCs contain a wide range of biologically active molecules, including biogenic amines, heparin or heparan sulfate proteoglycans, neutral proteases, and neuropeptides. In addition, upon stimulation, they also produce and eject a large number of factors (Wilhelm et al., 2000). Taking these characteristics together, it is clear that even a small number of such potent unicellular glands have a significant effect on different physiological processes.

In addition to the very well known and described mechanism of MC activation and posterior degranulation throughout IgE receptor, several other alternative but not redundant mechanisms of MC activation have been described (Mousli et al., 1994; Bradding, 2005; Kim et al., 2008). Among others, female sex hormones, estradiol and progesterone, have been proposed to activate MC (Chancey et al., 2005; Vasiadi et al., 2006; Narita et al., 2007; Zaitsu et al., 2007; Jensen et al., 2010; Jing et al., 2011; Walter et al., 2011). We will discuss in this review the current bibliography evidences about the effect of female sex hormones on MC functionality.

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