Progesterone was independently discovered by four research groups.
Willard Myron Allen co-discovered progesterone with his anatomy professor George Washington Corner at the University of Rochester Medical School in 1933. Allen first determined its melting point, molecular weight, and partial molecular structure. He also gave it the name Progesterone derived from Progestational Steroidal ketone.
In humans, increasing amounts of progesterone are produced during pregnancy:
At first, the source is the corpus luteum that has been "rescued" by the presence of human chorionic gonadotropins (hCG) from the conceptus.
However, after the 8th week, production of progesterone shifts to the placenta. The placenta utilizes maternal cholesterol as the initial substrate, and most of the produced progesterone enters the maternal circulation, but some is picked up by the fetal circulation and used as substrate for fetal corticosteroids. At term the placenta produces about 250 mg progesterone per day.
An additional source of progesterone is milk products. After consumption of milk products the level of bioavailable progesterone goes up.
In at least one plant, Juglans regia, progesterone has been detected. In addition, progesterone-like steroids are found in Dioscorea mexicana. Dioscorea mexicana is a plant that is part of the yam family native to Mexico. It contains a steroid called diosgenin that is taken from the plant and is converted into progesterone. Diosgenin and progesterone are found in other Dioscorea species as well.
Another plant that contains substances readily convertible to progesterone is Dioscorea pseudojaponica native to Taiwan. Research has shown that the Taiwanese yam contains saponins — steroids that can be converted to diosgenin and thence to progesterone.
Many other Dioscorea species of the yam family contain steroidal substances from which progesterone can be produced. Among the more notable of these are Dioscorea villosa and Dioscorea polygonoides. One study showed that the Dioscorea villosa contains 3.5% diosgenin.Dioscorea polygonoides has been found to contain 2.64% diosgenin as shown by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Many of the Dioscorea species that originate from the yam family grow in countries that have tropical and subtropical climates.
An economical semisynthesis of progesterone from the plant steroid diosgenin isolated from yams was developed by Russell Marker in 1940 for the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company (see figure to the right). This synthesis is known as the Marker degradation. Additional semisyntheses of progesterone have also been reported starting from a variety of steroids. For the example, cortisone can be simultaneously deoxygenated at the C-17 and C-21 position by treatment with iodotrimethylsilane in chloroform to produce 11-keto-progesterone (ketogestin), which in turn can be reduced at position-11 to yield progesterone.
A total synthesis of progesterone was reported in 1971 by W.S. Johnson (see figure to the right). The synthesis begins with reacting the phosphonium salt7 with phenyl lithium to produce the phosphonium ylide8. The ylide 8 is reacted with an aldehyde to produce the alkene9. The ketalprotecting groups of 9 are hydrolyzed to produce the diketone 10, which in turn is cyclized to form the cyclopentenone 11. The ketone of 11 is reacted with methyl lithium to yield the tertiary alcohol 12, which in turn is treated with acid to produce the tertiary cation 13. The key step of the synthesis is the π-cation cyclization of 13 in which the B-, C-, and D-rings of the steroid are simultaneously formed to produce 14. This step resembles the cationic cyclization reaction used in the biosynthesis of steroids and hence is referred to as biomimetic. In the next step the enolorthoester is hydrolyzed to produce the ketone 15. The cyclopentene A-ring is then opened by oxidizing with ozone to produce 16. Finally, the diketone 17 undergoes an intramolecular aldol condensation by treating with aqueous potassium hydroxide to produce progesterone.
In women, progesterone levels are relatively low during the preovulatory phase of the menstrual cycle, rise after ovulation, and are elevated during the luteal phase, as shown in diagram below. Progesterone levels tend to be < 2 ng/ml prior to ovulation, and > 5 ng/ml after ovulation. If pregnancy occurs, human chorionic gonadotropin is released maintaining the corpus luteum allowing it to maintain levels of progesterone. At around 12 weeks the placenta begins to produce progesterone in place of the corpus luteum, this process is named the luteal-placental shift. After the luteal-placental shift progesterone levels start to rise further and may reach 100-200 ng/ml at term. Whether a decrease in progesterone levels is critical for the initiation of labor has been argued and may be species-specific. After delivery of the placenta and during lactation, progesterone levels are very low.
Progesterone levels are relatively low in children and postmenopausal women. Adult males have levels similar to those in women during the follicular phase of the menstrual cycle.
Blood test results should always be interpreted using the reference ranges provided by the laboratory that performed the results. Example reference ranges are listed below.
Progesterone levels during the menstrual cycle. - The ranges denoted By biological stage may be used in closely monitored menstrual cycles in regard to other markers of its biological progression, with the time scale being compressed or stretched to how much faster or slower, respectively, the cycle progresses compared to an average cycle. - The ranges denoted Inter-cycle variability are more appropriate to use in non-monitored cycles with only the beginning of menstruation known, but where the woman accurately knows her average cycle lengths and time of ovulation, and that they are somewhat averagely regular, with the time scale being compressed or stretched to how much a woman's average cycle length is shorter or longer, respectively, than the average of the population. - The ranges denoted Inter-woman variability are more appropriate to use when the average cycle lengths and time of ovulation are unknown, but only the beginning of menstruation is given.
Progesterone exerts its primary action through the intracellular progesterone receptor although a distinct, membrane bound progesterone receptor has also been postulated. In addition, progesterone is a highly potent antagonist of the mineralocorticoid receptor (MR, the receptor for aldosterone and other mineralocorticosteroids). It prevents MR activation by binding to this receptor with an affinity exceeding even those of aldosterone and other corticosteroids such as cortisol and corticosterone.
Progesterone has a number of physiological effects that are amplified in the presence of estrogen. Estrogen through estrogen receptors upregulates the expression of progesterone receptors. Also, elevated levels of progesterone potently reduce the sodium-retaining activity of aldosterone, resulting in natriuresis and a reduction in extracellular fluid volume. Progesterone withdrawal, on the other hand, is associated with a temporary increase in sodium retention (reduced natriuresis, with an increase in extracellular fluid volume) due to the compensatory increase in aldosterone production, which combats the blockade of the mineralocorticoid receptor by the previously elevated level of progesterone.
Effects of Progesterone on Nicotine and Cocaine Addiction
Progesterone inhibits the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) which is responsible for breaking down serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter. In addition, progesterone enhances the serotonin receptor function in the brain, so too much or too little progesterone can cause significant problems on brain chemistry. This explains why people resort to substances that enhance serotonin activity such as nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana when their progesterone levels fall below optimal levels.
To examine the effects of progesterone on nicotine addiction specifically, one study researched the reinforcing effects of smoking in both men and women addicted to nicotine. Participants were either treated orally with a progesterone treatment, or treated with a placebo. When treated with progesterone, participants exhibited enhanced suppression of smoking urges, reported higher ratings of “bad effects” from IV nicotine, and reported lower ratings of “drug liking”. These results suggest that progesterone not only alters the subjective effects of nicotine, but reduces the urge to smoke cigarettes.
Further studies demonstrated sex differences such that changes in hormone levels may induce women to respond differently than men to nicotine. When women undergo cyclic changes or different hormonal transition phases (menopause, pregnancy, adolescence), there are changes in their progesterone levels. Therefore, females have an increased biological vulnerability to nicotine’s reinforcing effects compared to men and progesterone may be used to counter this enhanced vulnerability. This information helps us to understand how the female hormones profoundly impact brain functioning, and, thus behavior.
Furthermore, interestingly, past research suggests possible effects of progesterone on cocaine addiction. Similar to nicotine, cocaine also increases the release of dopamine in the brain. The neurotransmitter is involved in the reward center and is one of the main neurotransmitters involved with substance abuse and reliance. In a study of cocaine users, it was reported that progesterone reduced craving and the feeling of being stimulated by cocaine. Thus, progesterone was suggested as an agent that decreases cocaine craving by reducing the dopaminergic properties of the drug.
Progesterone has key effects via non-genomic signalling on human sperm as they migrate through the female tract before fertilization occurs, though the receptor(s) as yet remain unidentified. Detailed characterisation of the events occurring in sperm in response to progesterone has elucidated certain events including intracellular calcium transients and maintained changes, slow calcium oscillations, now thought to possibly regulate motility. Interestingly progesterone has also been shown to demonstrate effects on octopus spermatozoa.
Progesterone modulates the activity of CatSper (cation channels of sperm) voltage-gated Ca2+ channels. Since eggs release progesterone, sperm may use progesterone as a homing signal to swim toward eggs (chemotaxis). Hence substances that block the progesterone binding site on CatSper channels could potentially be used in male contraception.
Progesterone is sometimes called the "hormone of pregnancy", and it has many roles relating to the development of the fetus:
Progesterone converts the endometrium to its secretory stage to prepare the uterus for implantation. At the same time progesterone affects the vaginal epithelium and cervical mucus, making it thick and impenetrable to sperm. If pregnancy does not occur, progesterone levels will decrease, leading, in the human, to menstruation. Normal menstrual bleeding is progesterone-withdrawal bleeding. If ovulation does not occur and the corpus luteum does not develop, levels of progesterone may be low, leading to anovulatory dysfunctional uterine bleeding.
During implantation and gestation, progesterone appears to decrease the maternal immune response to allow for the acceptance of the pregnancy.
It may affect gum health, increasing risk of gingivitis (gum inflammation) and tooth decay.
It appears to prevent endometrial cancer (involving the uterine lining) by regulating the effects of estrogen.
Progesterone plays an important role in the signaling of insulin release and pancreatic function, and may affect the susceptibility to diabetes or gestational diabetes.
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Prometrium 100 mg Oral Capsule
The use of progesterone and its analogues have many medical applications, both to address acute situations and to address the long-term decline of natural progesterone levels. Because of the poor bioavailability of progesterone when taken orally, many synthetic progestins have been designed with improved oral bioavailability and have been used long before progesterone formulations became available. Progesterone was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration as vaginal gel on July 31, 1997, an oral capsule on May 14, 1998 in an injection form on April 25, 2001 and as a vaginal insert on June 21, 2007. In Italy and Spain, Progesterone is sold under the trademark Progeffik.
The route of administration impacts the effect of the drug. Given orally, progesterone has a wide person-to-person variability in absorption and bioavailability while synthetic progestins are rapidly absorbed with a longer half-life than progesterone and maintain stable levels in the blood.
Progesterone does not dissolve in water and is poorly absorbed when taken orally unless micronized in oil. Products are often sold as capsules containing micronised progesterone in oil. Progesterone can also be administered through vaginal or rectal suppositories or pessaries, transdermally through a gel or cream, or via injection (though the latter has a short half-life requiring daily administration).
Transdermal "natural progesterone" products made with Progesterone USP do not require a prescription. Some of these products also contain "wild yam extract" derived from Dioscorea villosa, but there is no evidence that the human body can convert its active ingredient (diosgenin, the plant steroid that is chemically converted to produce progesterone industrially) into progesterone.
Prevention of preterm birth
Vaginally dosed progesterone is being investigated as potentially beneficial in preventing preterm birth in women at risk for preterm birth. The initial study by Fonseca suggested that vaginal progesterone could prevent preterm birth in women with a history of preterm birth. According to a recent study, women with a short cervix that received hormonal treatment with a progesterone gel had their risk of prematurely giving birth reduced. The hormone treatment was administered vaginally every day during the second half of a pregnancy. A subsequent and larger study showed that vaginal progesterone was no better than placebo in preventing recurrent preterm birth in women with a history of a previous preterm birth, but a planned secondary analysis of the data in this trial showed that women with a short cervix at baseline in the trial had benefit in two ways: a reduction in births less than 32 weeks and a reduction in both the frequency and the time their babies were in intensive care. In another trial, vaginal progesterone was shown to be better than placebo in reducing preterm birth prior to 34 weeks in women with an extremely short cervix at baseline. An editorial by Roberto Romero discusses the role of sonographic cervical length in identifying patients who may benefit from progesterone treatment. A meta-analysis published in 2011 found that vaginal progesterone cut the risk of premature births by 42 percent in women with short cervixes. The meta-analysis, which pooled published results of five large clinical trials, also found that the treatment cut the rate of breathing problems and reduced the need for placing a baby on a ventilator.
Other specific uses
Progesterone is used for luteal support in Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) cycles such as In-vitro Fertilization (IVF).
Progesterone is used to control persistent anovulatory bleeding. It is also used to prepare uterine lining in infertility therapy and to support early pregnancy. Patients with recurrent pregnancy loss due to inadequate progesterone production may receive progesterone.
Progesterone is also used in nonpregnant women with a delayed menstruation of one or more weeks, in order to allow the thickened endometrial lining to slough off. This process is termed a progesterone withdrawal bleed. The progesterone is taken orally for a short time (usually one week), after which the progesterone is discontinued and bleeding should occur.
Progesterone is being investigated as potentially beneficial in treating multiple sclerosis, since the characteristic deterioration of nerve myelin insulation halts during pregnancy, when progesterone levels are raised; deterioration commences again when the levels drop.
Since most progesterone in males is created during testicular production of testosterone, and most in females by the ovaries, the shutting down (whether by natural or chemical means), or removal, of those inevitably causes a considerable reduction in progesterone levels. Previous concentration upon the role of progestogens (progesterone and molecules with similar effects) in female reproduction, when progesterone was simply considered a "female hormone", obscured the significance of progesterone elsewhere in both sexes.
The tendency for progesterone to have a regulatory effect, the presence of progesterone receptors in many types of body tissue, and the pattern of deterioration (or tumor formation) in many of those increasing in later years when progesterone levels have dropped, is prompting widespread research into the potential value of maintaining progesterone levels in both males and females.
Role in brain damage
Studies as far back as 1987 show that female sex hormones have an effect on the recovery of traumatic brain injury. In these studies, it was first observed that pseudopregnant female rats had reduced edema after traumatic brain injury. Recent clinical trials have shown that among patients that have suffered moderate traumatic brain injury, those that have been treated with progesterone are more likely to have a better outcome than those who have not.
Previous studies have shown that progesterone supports the normal development of neurons in the brain, and that the hormone has a protective effect on damaged brain tissue. It has been observed in animal models that females have reduced susceptibility to traumatic brain injury and this protective effect has been hypothesized to be caused by increased circulating levels of estrogen and progesterone in females. A number of additional animal studies have confirmed that progesterone has neuroprotective effects when administered shortly after traumatic brain injury. Encouraging results have also been reported in human clinical trials.
The mechanism of progesterone protective effects may be the reduction of inflammation that follows brain trauma.
Progesterone has also been shown to prevent apoptosis in neurons, a common consequence of brain injury. It does so by inhibiting enzymes involved in the apoptosis pathway specifically concerning the mitochondria, such as activated caspase 3 and cytochrome c.
Not only does progesterone help prevent further damage, it has also been shown to aid in neuroregeneration. One of the serious effects of traumatic brain injury includes edema. Animal studies show that progesterone treatment leads to a decrease in edema levels by increasing the concentration of macrophages and microglia sent to the injured tissue. This was observed in the form of reduced leakage from the blood brain barrier in secondary recovery in progesterone treated rats. In addition, progesterone was observed to have antioxidant properties, reducing the concentration of oxygen free radicals faster than without. There is also evidence that the addition of progesterone can also help remyelinate damaged axons due to trauma, restoring some lost neural signal conduction. Another way progesterone aids in regeneration includes increasing the circulation of endothelial progenitor cells in the brain. This helps new vasculature to grow around scar tissue which helps repair the area of insult.
Vitamin D and progesterone separately have neuroprotective effects after traumatic brain injury, but when combined their effects are synergistic. When used at their optimal respective concentrations, the two combined have been shown to reduce cell death more than when alone.
One study looks at a combination of progesterone with estrogen. Both progesterone and estrogen are known to have antioxidant-like qualities and are shown to reduce edema without injuring the blood-brain barrier. In this study, when the two hormones are administered alone it does reduce edema, but the combination of the two increases the water content, thereby increasing edema.
The clinical trials for progesterone as a treatment for traumatic brain injury have only recently begun. ProTECT, a phase II trial conducted in Atlanta at Grady Memorial Hospital in 2007, the first to show that progesterone reduces edema in humans. Since then, trials have moved on to phase III. The National Institute of Health began conducting a nationwide phase III trial in 2011 led by Emory University. A global phase III initiative called SyNAPSe®, initiated in June 2010, is run by a U.S.-based private pharmaceutical company, BHR Pharma, and is being conducted in the United States, Argentina, Europe, Israel and Asia. Approximately 1,200 patients with severe (Glasgow Coma Scale scores of 3-8), closed-head TBI will be enrolled in the study at nearly 150 medical centers.
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