Human endometrial stromal decidualization is required for embryo receptivity, angiogenesis, and placentation. Previous studies from our laboratories established that connexin (Cx)-43 critically regulates endometrial stromal cell (ESC) differentiation, whereas gap junction blockade prevents it. The current study evaluated the plasticity of ESC morphology and Cx43 expression, as well as other biochemical markers of cell differentiation, in response to decidualizing hormones. Primary human ESC cultureswere exposedto 10 nM estradiol, 100 nM progesterone, and 0.5 mM cAMPfor up to 14 days, followed by hormone withdrawal for 14 days, mimicking a biphasic ovulatory cycle. Reversible differentiation was documented by characteristic changes in cell shape. Cx43 was reversibly up- and down-regulated after the estradiol, progesterone, and cAMP treatment and withdrawal, respectively, paralleled by fluctuations in prolactin, vascular endothelial growth factor, IL-11, and glycodelin secretion. Markers of mesenchymal-epithelial transition (MET), and its counterpart epithelial-mesenchymal transition, followed reciprocal patterns corresponding to the morphological changes. Incubation in the presence of 18α-glycyrrhetinicacid, an inhibitor of gap junctions, partially reversed the expression of decidualization and MET markers. In the absence of hormones, Cx43 overexpression promoted increases in vascular endothelial growth factor and IL-11 secretion, up-regulated MET markers, and reduced N-cadherin, an epithelial-mesenchymal transition marker. The combined results support the hypothesis that Cx43-containing gap junctions and endocrine factors cooperate to regulate selected biomarkers of stromal decidualization and MET and suggest roles for both phenomena in endometrial preparation for embryonic receptivity.
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