The ‘oestrogen hypothesis’– where do we stand now?1


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    This is a review article for the 2nd European Congress of Andrology in Malmö, Sweden.

R. M. Sharpe, MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit, Centre for Reproductive Biology, The University of Edinburgh Academic Centre, 49 Little France Crescent, Old Dalkeith Road, Edinburgh EH16 4SB, UK. E-mail:


The original ‘oestrogen hypothesis’ postulated that the apparent increase in human male reproductive developmental disorders (testis cancer, cryptorchidism, hypospadias, low sperm counts) might have occurred because of increased oestrogen exposure of the human foetus/neonate; five potential routes of exposure were considered. This review revisits this hypothesis in the light of the data to have emerged since 1993. It addresses whether there is a secular increasing trend in the listed disorders and highlights the limitations of available data and how these are being addressed. It considers whether new data has emerged to support the suggestion that increased oestrogen exposure could cause these abnormalities and reviews new data on potential routes via which such increased exposure could have occurred. Secular trends: The disorders listed above are now considered to represent a syndrome of disorders (testicular dysgenesis syndrome, TDS) with a common origin in foetal life. Testicular cancer has increased in incidence in Caucasian men worldwide and lifetime risk is 0.3–0.8%. Secular trends in cryptorchidism are unclear but it is by far the commonest (2–4% at birth) congenital abnormality in either sex. Secular trends for hypospadias are not robust, although most studies suggest a progressive increase; registry data probably under-estimates incidence, but based on this data hypospadias is the second most common (0.3–0.7% at birth) congenital malformation. Retrospective analyses of sperm count data show a global downward trend but this is inconclusive – prospective studies using standardized methodology show significant differences between countries and very low sperm counts in the youngest cohort of men. For all disorders, other then testis cancer, standardized prospective studies are the best way forward and are in progress across Europe. Oestrogen effects: Evidence that foetal exposure to oestrogens can induce the above disorders has strengthened. New pathways via which such changes could be induced have been identified, including suppression of testosterone production by the foetal testis, suppression of androgen receptor expression and suppression of insulin-like factor-3 (InsL3) production by foetal Leydig cells. Other evidence suggests that the balance between androgen and oestrogen action may be important in induction of reproductive tract abnormalities. Oestrogen exposure: Although many new environmental oestrogens have been identified, their uniformly weak oestrogenicity excludes the possibility that they could induce the above disorders. However, emerging data implicates various environmental chemicals in being able to alter endogenous levels of androgens (certain phthalates) and oestrogens (polychlorinated biphenyls, polyhalogenated hydrocarbons), and the former have been shown to induce a similar collection of disorders to TDS. Other mechanisms via which increased fetal exposure to pregnancy oestrogens might occur (increasing trend in obesity, dietary changes) are also discussed.