Hypothalamic CRH is the primary positive regulatory factor of the pituitary-adrenal axis. The purpose of our study was to analyze the chronic effects of CRH on the production and secretion of POMC peptides from both the anterior lobe (AL) and neurointermediate lobe (NIL) of the pituitary by mimicking the syndrome of ectopic CRH secretion from neuroendocrine tumors. We first generated stably transfected W2 medullary thyroid carcinoma cell lines with a rat CRH expression vector under the transcriptional control of a cytomegalovirus gene promoter. These cell lines constitutively expressed the foreign gene, accurately processed the encoded prepro-CRH, and secreted biologically active CRH with an estimated potency equivalent to that of synthetic CRH-(1-41)NH2. The cell line designated W2CRH-7 was implanted sc in the syngeneic rat strain WAG/Rij and produced tumors that abundantly secreted CRH into the peripheral circulation. Four weeks postimplantation, W2CRH-7, but not wild-type W2, cells caused significant increases in the AL content of β-endorphin-like immunoreactivity comparable to that caused by adrenalectomy (ADX). Plasma ACTH and serum β-endorphin-like immunoreactivity were increased to a greater extent by ADX than by W2CRH-7 cell implantation. The NIL of both male and female rats showed either no change or a tendency to decreased β-endorphin concentrations with no change in the acetylation or carboxy-shortening profiles judged by cation exchange chromatography in response to the ectopic CRH treatment. Rats of both sexes maintained a profound activation of the pituitary adrenal axis up to 16 weeks postimplantation, with normalized adrenal gland weights 5 times that of controls. The chronic secretion of CRH by W2CRH-7 cells resulted in a complete cessation of body growth in all rats up to the maximum time tested of 16 weeks. The lack of growth was partly ameliorated by concomitant ADX, suggesting an important role for adrenal glucocorticoids in these effects. We conclude that 1) the transplantable W2CRH-7 cell line provides a highly effective and reproducible means of sustained CRH treatment that mimics the syndrome of ectopic CRH expression by neuroendocrine tumors; 2) AL corticotrophs respond to chronic CRH by a sustained production and secretion of POMC peptides, leading to a marked adrenal cortical hyperplasia, with no evidence of biologically significant desensitization; 3) chronic CRH tends to decrease the NIL content of β-endorphin, with remarkably little effect on posttranslational processing; and 4) the syndrome of chronic ectopic CRH in WAG/Rij rats includes a cessation of body growth at least partly due to products of the adrenal glands.
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