Friday, January 30, 2015

Clinical use of Gonadotropin-Releasing Hormone (GnRH) Agonists in Companion Animals: An Overview

In dogs, cats, ferrets, and pet birds, reproductive physiology is under the control of the hypothalamic­pituitary­-gonadal (HPG) axis. Many hormones are responsible for estrus and reproduction, the most significant being luteinizing hormone (LH), follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), and gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Short-lived GnRH is released in a pulsatile fashion from the hypothalamus and acts on the pars distalis of the pituitary gland to stimulate the synthesis and release of the gonadotropins, FSH and LH (Figure 1). Secretion of these gonadotropins into the circulation lead to changes gonadal hormone production and reproductive function.

Figure 1: Regulation of gonadal secretion via the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis.
Chemical modification of the native short-acting GnRH molecule has led to development of long-acting, potent GnRH agonists, which have been used as a medical means of management for a number of reproductive issues and diseases of companion animals (1-3). GnRH agonists may either stimulate estrus or effectively sterilize the patient, depending on the duration of action and the dosage applied. These agents work by initially stimulating gonadotrophin secretion, followed shortly thereafter with desensitization of the GnRH receptor to the GnRH agonist (Figure 2). This results in a temporary but long-term, fully-reversible down-regulation of gonadotrophin secretion, leading to suppression of reproduction function in both male and female animals (4).

Figure 2: GnRH agonists initially stimulate pituitary LH and FSH secretion, followed by desensitization and down-relation of gonadotrophin secretion.
In recent years, effective low-dose, slow-release implants containing potent GnRH agonists have been released for use in veterinary medicine, especially in Europe and Australia. In companion animals, the deslorelin implant (Suprelorin, Virbac) is the most commonly GnRH agonist used in small animals (5). Deslorelin implants work by lowering pituitary gonadotrophin section. This is not a permanent change but depending on the deslorelin dose, can last up to many months. The implant does not have to be removed, but subsequent doses are needed to sustain the effect.

Unfortunately, GnRH agonist availability is limited in the United States. Although there are GnRH agonists available that are approved for the treatment of human diseases, such as prostate cancer, they are costly and not financially feasible for a pet owner to consider. To date, deslorelin acetate (Suprelorin, Virbac Animal Health, Fort Worth, TX, USA) is the only GnRH agonist that is currently available in the United States but only for the treatment of adrenal disease in ferrets (6). However, it is not legal to use Suporelin in non-ferret species in the United States and extra-label use is explicitly prohibited.

The aim of this blog is to review the applications and treatments of the deslorelin (GnRH agonist) currently used in companion animal medicine.

Deslorelin Use in Intact Male Dogs
In male dogs treated with deslorelin, this GnRH agonist leads to decreased gonadotropins secretion and resultant lowered plasma testosterone concentrations, decreased testicular volume, and azoospermia (1-3,7-9). However, the response to this GnRH agonist can be very variable from one dog to another, and the duration of inhibition of testosterone secretion depends both on the concentration of the deslorelin implant and the size of the dog.

Many studies have confirmed that use of GnRH agonists for reversible chemical sterilization in male dogs is both safe and well-tolerated (7-9). Furthermore, repeated implantation can be used to maintain circulating testosterone at low concentrations. If the deslorelin implants are stopped, the treated dogs will regain normal serum testosterone levels within a few weeks, with full recovery of seminal quality once the GnRH implant has lost its efficacy (10,11).

In addition to contraception, GnRH agonists have also been used to reduce the size of the prostate gland, an effect that may be useful in dogs with benign prostatic hyperplasia (12-14).

Deslorelin in Intact Male Cats
As in dogs, GnRH agonists are gaining increased importance in feline reproductive medicine (2,3,15). In intact male cats, deslorelin implants induce chemical sterilization, as in dogs. In these cats, testosterone concentrations decline rapidly to undetectable values by 3 weeks after implantation and remain low for weeks in the majority of the tomcats treated. As the circulating testosterone falls, the testicular volume decreases and penile spines disappear.

However, high individual variability has been reported, with the duration of efficacy varying between 6 and 24 months (15-17). Similar to dogs, it is possible to use repeated implantation of deslorelin to sustain the drug’s effect.

Deslorelin in Intact Bitches
Although deslorelin implants are only approved for male dogs in Europe (and again, not at all in the USA), studies have been performed in the bitch to investigate its use either as a contraceptive or a method of estrus induction (1-3,18-20).

The first step in the mechanism of action of all GnRH agonists is the stimulation in FSH and LH secretion (so-called "flare-up effect") (4). This followed within a few days by a profound hypogonadal effect (i.e., decrease in FSH and LH levels), which is achieved through receptor down-regulation by internalization of receptors. Generally this induced and reversible hypogonadism is the therapeutic goal, as noted above for the male dogs and cats (1-3).

The initial stimulating effect on gonadotrophin secretion is more pronounced in females than in males (18,19). Thus, estrus induction will be observed in the majority of bitches implanted in anestrus. If pregnancy is achieved, most recommend removal of the deslorelin implant either at the beginning of proestrus, at the time of the LH surge, or at the time of ovulation (2,3,18,19). However, some have reported that some bitches carried their pregnancies to term without the implant being removed, suggesting that down-regulation of gonadotrophin secretion may not be strong enough to induce luteal failure in all bitches.

For use as a contraceptive method, the main problem with using deslorelin implants in female dogs is estrus induction, as discussed above (20). For this reason, deslorelin implants cannot be considered a viable alternative to other, current used contraception in bitches.

Deslorelin in Intact Queens
In contrast to female dogs, the main indication for the use of deslorelin in the female queen is estrus inhibition. Studies have confirmed that this GnRH agonist can be used to effectively suppress ovarian activity (15,20-22), but the duration of inhibition was highly variable among the individual queens depending on the dosage administered. However, deslorelin generally suppresses ovarian activity for many months.

Deslorelin in Spayed Bitches with Urinary Incontinence
Ovariectomy results in elevated circulating concentrations of pituitary LH because of the lack of gonadal negative-feedback on the pituitary gland. LH receptors are present throughout the canine urinary tract (23-25), and it has been postulated that elevated gonadotropins may contribute to the development of urethral sphincter mechanism incompetence (26,27).

Treatment of bitches with long-acting GnRH agonists, such as delorelin, downregulates LH secretion for prolonged time periods and temporarily restores continence to incontinent bitches for varying durations, ranging from 50-738 days (26,27). Similar to alpha-adrenergic agonists (e.g., phenylpropanolamine; PPA), GnRH agonists are not completely effective for the treatment of this urinary incontinence. However, unlike PPA, no adverse effects to GnRH agonists have been reported.

Deslorelin in Ferrets with Adrenal Disease
As in dogs and cats, deslorelin is also a promising and suitable method for contraception in ferrets (28-31). However, GnRH agonists are useful in medical management of ferrets suffering from adrenal disease (hyperadrenocorticism) a common disease in castrated males and females (32-34). In one study of ferrets with adrenal disease, the clinical signs (e.g., vulvar swelling, pruritus, sexual behavior, and aggression) were reduced or markedly suppressed within 14 days of implantation of the deslorelin (34). The time for signs to recur in these ferrets ranged from 8.5–20.5 months (34).

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