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Context and objective. Common genetic variants in CYP17A1 associate with higher blood pressure, putatively from impaired 17 alpha-hydroxylase activity and mineralocorticoid excess. However, the same variants protect against obesity and insulin resistance. We tested whether CYP17A1 variants that enhance 17 alpha-hydroxylase activity cause ‘relative corticosterone deficiency’. Since corticosterone is thought to contribute disproportionately to negative feedback in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, we also tested whether lower corticosterone associates with higher cortisol and hence with metabolic syndrome. Design: Cross-sectional studies within the population-based Orkney Complex Disease Study (ORCADES; n=2018), VIKING Health Study Shetland (VIKING; n=2098), East Hertfordshire study (EHERTS; n=279), Edinburgh Type 2 Diabetes Study (ET2DS; n=903), and the Swiss Kidney Project on Genes in Hypertension (SKIPOGH; n=888). Outcome measures. Cortisol and corticosterone in morning plasma samples in ORCADES, VIKING and ET2DS, and in EHERTS in plasma following overnight dexamethasone suppression (0.25mg) and 30 mins after ACTH1-24 (1µg); cortisol and corticosterone metabolites in day and night urine samples in SKIPOGH. Features of the metabolic syndrome including body mass index, systolic blood pressure, lipid profile, fasting glucose, fasting insulin and HOMA-IR. Results. In ORCADES, ET2DS and SKIPOGH, CYP17A1 variants were associated with corticosterone:cortisol ratio. In ORCADES, VIKING and ET2DS there were consistent associations of morning plasma cortisol and corticosterone with BMI, blood pressure, lipid profile, fasting glucose and HOMA-IR. In EHERTS, however, after dexamethasone suppression and ACTH1-24 stimulation, impaired glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity were associated with higher cortisol but lower corticosterone. Similarly, in SKIPOGH, low corticosterone:cortisol metabolite ratios were associated with high BMI and dyslipidemia. Conclusions. ‘Relative corticosterone deficiency’, due to a primary alteration in adrenal steroidogenesis favouring cortisol over corticosterone, may mediate the associations of genetic variation in CYP17A1 with metabolic syndrome. However, additional determinants of variation in plasma corticosterone are likely to explain its generally positive associations with features of metabolic syndrome.

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