Estradiol (E2) and 5alpha-androstan-3alpha,17beta-diol (3alpha-diol) have been implicated in prostate hyperplasia in man and dogs, but neither of these steroids bind to androgen receptors (ARs). Recently, we reported that E2 and 3alpha-diol stimulated generation of intracellular cAMP via binding to a complex of sex hormone-binding globulin (SHBG) and its receptor (R(SHBG)) on prostate cells. We speculated that this pathway, involving steroids normally found in the prostate, was involved in the indirect activation of ARs. Using the dog as a model to test this hypothesis in normal prostate, we investigated whether E2, 3alpha-diol, and SHBG stimulated the production of the androgen-responsive protein, arginine esterase (AE), the canine equivalent of human prostate-specific antigen. In cultured dog prostate tissue preincubated with SHBG, E2 and 3alpha-diol stimulated AE activity. These effects were blocked by hydroxyflutamide, an AR antagonist, and by 2-methoxyestradiol, a competitive inhibitor of E2 and 3alpha-diol binding to SHBG. In the absence of exogenous steroids and SHBG, AE also was significantly increased by treatment with forskolin or 8-Bromoadenosine-cAMP. These observations support the hypothesis that in normal prostate, E2 and 3alpha-diol can amplify or substitute for androgens, with regard to activation of the AR via the R(SHBG) by a signal transduction pathway involving cAMP. Because both E2 and 3alpha-diol are involved in the pathogenesis of benign prostatic hyperplasia in dogs and implicated in benign prostatic hyperplasia in man, antagonism of the prostatic SHBG pathway may offer a novel and attractive therapeutic target.