To gain insight into the relationships between the aromatase inhibitory activity of 6-alkyl-substituted androgens, potent competitive inhibitors, and their ability to serve as a substrate of aromatase, we studied the aromatization of a series of 6α- and 6β-alkyl (methyl, ethyl, n-propyl, n-pentyl and n-heptyl)-substituted androst-4-ene-3,17-diones (ADs) and their androsta-1,4-diene-3,17-dione (ADD) derivatives with human placental aromatase, by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. Among the inhibitors examined, ADD and its 6α-alkyl derivatives with alkyl functions less than three carbons long, together with 6β-methyl ADD, are suicide substrates of aromatase. All of the steroids, except for 6β-n-pentyl ADD and its n-heptyl analogue as well as 6β-n-heptyl AD, were found to be converted into the corresponding 6-alkyl oestrogens. The 6-methyl steroids were aromatized most efficiently in each series, and the aromatization rate essentially decreased in proportion to the length of the 6-alkyl chains in each series, where the 6α-alkyl androgens were more efficient substrates than the corresponding 6β isomers. The Vmax of 6α-methyl ADD was approx. 2.5-fold that of the natural substrate AD and approx. 3-fold that of the parent ADD. On the basis of this, along with the facts that the rates of a mechanism-based inactivation of aromatase by ADD and its 6α-methyl derivative are similar, it is implied that alignment of 6α-methyl ADD in the active site could favour the pathway leading to oestrogen over the inactivation pathway, compared with that of ADD. The relative apparent Km values for the androgens obtained in this study are different from the relative Ki values obtained previously, indicating that there is a difference between the ability to serve as an inhibitor and the ability to serve as a substrate in the 6-alkyl androgen series.

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