21-hydroxylase deficiency pathophysiology

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Editor-In-Chief: C. Michael Gibson, M.S., M.D. [1]; Associate Editor-In-Chief: Mehrian Jafarizade, M.D [2], Ahmad Al Maradni, M.D. [3]


The progression to 21-hydroxylase deficiency usually involves the defective conversion of 17-hydroxyprogesterone to 11-deoxycortisol which results in decreased cortisol synthesis and therefore increased corticotropin (ACTH) secretion. The resulting adrenal stimulation leads to increased production of androgens due to shunting of the pathway to androgen synthesis. More than 95% of cases of congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) are caused by 21-hydroxylase deficiency. The clinical manifestations of congenital adrenal hyperplasia is closely related to the type and severity of disease. The severity of disease relates to the type of mutation which causes enzyme inactivity or hypo-activity. There is a lack of enzyme in classic form of 21-hydroxylase deficiency; while in the non-classic form, enzymatic activity is reduced but sufficient to maintain normal glucocorticoid and mineralocorticoid production. The gene responsible for 21-hydroxylase deficiency is CYP21A. This gene is located within the human leucocyte antigen class III region of chromosome 6. Meiotic recombination occurs in this genomic region as a result of the high degree of sequence homology between CYP21A2 and its pseudogene CYP21A1. Approximately 70% of CYP21A2 genetic mutation is due to gene conversion and micro-deletions in CYP21A1 gene.



Glucocorticoid pathway

Mineralocorticoids pathway

Androgen pathway

Below is the hormonal pathway of adrenal steroids and related enzymes, also the mechanism of 21 hydroxylase deficiency symptoms.[1][2]

Adrenal steroid synthesis pathways in adrenal cortex and related enzymes [3]


CYP21A gene

CYP21A gene has two types:

Mutation mechanisms:

Gross Pathology

Gross pathology findings in patients with 21 hydroxylase deficiency are:[8][9]

Microscopic Pathology

In 21-hydroxylase deficiency microscopic findings may include:

Adrenal gland, Cortex - Hyperplasia in a female rat from a chronic study. There is a hyperplastic lesion (H) in which cortical cells are increased in number but are smaller in size than adjacent normal cortical cells (NC)[10]
Adrenal gland, Cortex - Hyperplasia in a male rat from a chronic study. There are two adjacent foci of hyperplasia (H) in the zona fasciculata.[10]


  1. White PC, Speiser PW (2000). "Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency". Endocr. Rev. 21 (3): 245–91. doi:10.1210/edrv.21.3.0398. PMID 10857554.
  2. Speiser PW, Azziz R, Baskin LS, Ghizzoni L, Hensle TW, Merke DP, Meyer-Bahlburg HF, Miller WL, Montori VM, Oberfield SE, Ritzen M, White PC (2010). "Congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency: an Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline". J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 95 (9): 4133–60. doi:10.1210/jc.2009-2631. PMC 2936060. PMID 20823466.
  3. "File:Adrenal Steroids Pathways.svg - Wikimedia Commons".
  4. Finkielstain GP, Chen W, Mehta SP, Fujimura FK, Hanna RM, Van Ryzin C, McDonnell NB, Merke DP (2011). "Comprehensive genetic analysis of 182 unrelated families with congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency". J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 96 (1): E161–72. doi:10.1210/jc.2010-0319. PMC 3038490. PMID 20926536.
  5. New MI, Abraham M, Gonzalez B, Dumic M, Razzaghy-Azar M, Chitayat D, Sun L, Zaidi M, Wilson RC, Yuen T (2013). "Genotype-phenotype correlation in 1,507 families with congenital adrenal hyperplasia owing to 21-hydroxylase deficiency". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 110 (7): 2611–6. doi:10.1073/pnas.1300057110. PMC 3574953. PMID 23359698.
  6. White PC, New MI, Dupont B (1986). "Structure of human steroid 21-hydroxylase genes". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 83 (14): 5111–5. PMC 323900. PMID 3487786.
  7. Fiet J, Gueux B, Gourmelen M, Kuttenn F, Vexiau P, Couillin P, Pham-Huu-Trung MT, Villette JM, Raux-Demay MC, Galons H (1988). "Comparison of basal and adrenocorticotropin-stimulated plasma 21-deoxycortisol and 17-hydroxyprogesterone values as biological markers of late-onset adrenal hyperplasia". J. Clin. Endocrinol. Metab. 66 (4): 659–67. doi:10.1210/jcem-66-4-659. PMID 2831244.
  8. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia. Dr Henry Knipe and Dr M Venkatesh . Radiopaedia.org 2015.http://radiopaedia.org/articles/congenital-adrenal-hyperplasia
  9. Teixeira SR, Elias PC, Andrade MT, Melo AF, Elias Junior J (2014). "The role of imaging in congenital adrenal hyperplasia". Arq Bras Endocrinol Metabol. 58 (7): 701–8. PMID 25372578.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 "Adrenal Gland - Hyperplasia - Nonneoplastic Lesion Atlas".

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