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WJ McLaren, IR Young and GE Rice

Parturition in the ewe is preceded by an increase in the synthesis of prostaglandins (PGs) by gestational tissues. To establish the uterine source of these PGs, placental cotyledons, fetal membranes and maternal uterine tissues were collected from ewes (n=6) at spontaneous parturition. Solubilised tissue extracts were prepared and analysed by Western blots using polyclonal antibodies to PG G/H synthase-1 and -2 (PGHS-1 and PGHS-2). PGHS-1 was expressed by all intrauterine tissues at term labour. Densitometric analysis of Western blot autoradiographs showed that the fetal membranes and maternal cervix contained the largest amounts of PGHS-1. PGHS-1 enzyme content of ovine amnion was significantly greater than that of either chorion or allantois (P<0.05). PGHS-1 protein content of myometrial, endometrial and cotyledonary tissue extracts was minimal. Formation of the PGHS-2 isozyme was confined to placental tissue at term labour. PGHS-2 protein levels in sheep placenta were significantly higher than those of PGHS-1 in all intrauterine tissues examined. This result supports the hypothesis that PGHS-2 is a major contributor to PG formation at term labour. To elucidate the developmental changes in PGHS-1 and PGHS-2 relative to labour onset, an experimental paradigm of glucocorticoid-induced delivery was used. Previous characterisation and validation of this labour model demonstrated that direct, transabdominal, intrafetal injection of the synthetic glucocorticoid betamethasone (5.7 mg in 1 ml aqueous vehicle) on day 131 of gestation induced labour onset in 56.6+/-0.8 h (mean+/-s.e.m.). As the latent period to induced-labour was known, the time course of enzyme formation could be ascertained. Sheep (n=20) were killed by barbiturate injection at various time intervals post-injection (0, 14, 28, 42 and 56 h). Tissue extracts collected at post-mortem examination were prepared and analysed by Western blots. PGHS-2 was induced in ovine cotyledon in a time-dependent fashion following glucocorticoid injection (P<0.05). There was a 12-fold increase in abundance between the time of betamethasone administration (0 h) and established labour (56 h). The PGHS-2 isozyme was not detected in any of the other tissues examined. In contrast, formation of the PGHS-1 isozyme did not change in relation to induced-labour in any of the intrauterine tissues. This finding is consistent with constitutive formation of PGHS-1. Previous studies have demonstrated a rise in PG production in association with glucocorticoid-induced labour and spontaneous delivery. The results of the present study indicate that this rise in PG production is due to increased formation of the PGHS-2 isozyme in ovine cotyledon. PGHS-2 appears to be induced by exogenous glucocorticoid administration and/or the mechanisms controlling ovine parturition. The role of PG formation by the fetal membranes is yet to be elucidated.

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KR Poore, IR Young, BJ Canny and GD Thorburn

A dramatic late-gestation increase in fetal plasma cortisol concentrations is critical for the timing of parturition in the sheep. This increase appears to depend upon an intact hypothalamo-pituitary unit and is characterised by increasing responsiveness of the fetal adrenal gland to ACTH. ACTH has been postulated as the critical determinant of the late-gestation cortisol increase; however, recent evidence has suggested that other factors, including the ACTH precursor, pro-opiomelanocortin, may also be involved. To further define the role of ACTH in determining the timing of parturition and the responsiveness of the fetal adrenal gland, intact (INT/ACTH) and hypophysectomised (HX/ACTH) fetuses received a continuous infusion of ACTH(1-24) from the time of surgery (approximately 115 days gestational age (GA)) at a rate we have previously shown to generate normal fetal cortisol concentrations and term parturition in HX fetuses. A third group of saline-infused intact fetuses (INT/SAL) served as the control group. Adrenal responsiveness was assessed by cortisol responses to ACTH(1-24) challenges at 120, 130 and 140 days GA. There were no differences between the three groups of fetuses in the timing of parturition, the late-gestation increase in cortisol concentrations or the size of the adrenal cortex. In both INT/SAL and INT/ACTH fetuses, there were significant increases in basal immunoreactive-ACTH concentrations with advancing GA, although no such increase was observed in HX/ACTH fetuses. The proportion of total ACTH immunoreactivity present in low molecular weight (LMW) forms in INT/ACTH fetuses was greater than that in INT/SAL fetuses, while the level of LMW ACTH in HX/ACTH fetuses was intermediate. Both ACTH(1-24)-infused groups of fetuses had dramatically enhanced adrenal responsiveness to ACTH(1-24) at all GAs tested when compared with INT/SAL fetuses and there was a correlation (in rank order) between the proportion of LMW ACTH immunoreactivity and adrenal responsiveness. From these observations it appears that there is a separate regulation of adrenal responsiveness from basal cortisol concentrations and that an increase in basal cortisol concentrations can occur in the absence of an increase in basal ACTH concentrations. Furthermore, an increase in adrenal responsiveness does not appear to predict the timing of parturition nor basal cortisol concentrations. Taken together with previous studies it appears that ACTH plays an essential role in maintaining the growth of the fetal adrenal and enhancing its responsiveness, but a late-gestation increase in ACTH concentrations is not required to regulate basal cortisol concentrations or the timing of parturition.

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PJ Simmonds, ID Phillips, KR Poore, ID Coghill, IR Young and BJ Canny

To further understand the relative roles of the pituitary gland and ACTH in the regulation of mRNAs encoding proteins that are essential for adrenal development, we investigated the effects of, first, an ACTH infusion and labour in intact fetuses and, secondly, the effect of an ACTH infusion to fetuses with and without a pituitary gland, on the relative abundance of the mRNA encoding for the ACTH receptor (MC2R), steroidogenic factor 1 (SF-1), cholesterol side-chain cleavage enzyme (P450(scc)), 3beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3betaHSD) and 17alpha-hydroxylase (P450(C17)) in the fetal adrenal gland. ACTH(1-24) infusion (14.7 pmol/kg per h) to intact fetuses was without effect on the abundance of mRNA encoding MC2R and SF-1, irrespective of whether the infusion was given for 18 (115-132 days of gestation) or 32 days (115 days to term (147 days of gestation)). Hypophysectomy (HX) did not alter the expression of MC2R mRNA; however, the abundance of SF-1 mRNA fell by approximately 50% following the removal of the pituitary gland. ACTH(1-24) infusion to HX fetuses failed to restore levels of SF-1 mRNA to that seen in intact animals. P450(scc) and 3betaHSD mRNAs were increased by ACTH(1-24) infusion for 18 days in intact animals, although no effects of the infusion were seen on P450(C17) mRNA levels. For all three of these mRNAs, there was a significant increase in their abundance between 132 days of gestation and term in intact fetuses. By term, ACTH(1-24) infusion was without any additional effect on their abundance. HX decreased the expression of P450(scc), 3betaHSD and P450(C17) mRNAs, while ACTH(1-24) infusion to HX fetuses increased the expression of these mRNAs to levels seen in intact animals. There were significant correlations between the abundance of the mRNA for P450(scc), 3betaHSD and P450(C17), but not MC2R and SF-1, and premortem plasma cortisol concentrations. These results emphasise the importance of the pituitary gland and ACTH in the regulation of the enzymes involved in adrenal steroidogenesis. Factors in addition to ACTH may also play some role, as the infusion was not always effective in increasing the abundance of the mRNAs. Surprisingly, the mRNA for MC2R and SF-1 did not appear to be regulated by ACTH in the late-gestation ovine fetus, though a pituitary-dependent factor may be involved in the regulation of SF-1 mRNA abundance.

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HK Palliser, GT Ooi, JJ Hirst, G Rice, NL Dellios, RM Escalona and IR Young

The differential production of prostaglandin (PG) F(2 alpha) and PGE(2) within the uterine compartment may play a role in controlling myometrial contraction. We hypothesized that the enzymes downstream of PG endoperoxide synthase-2 (PGHS-2) determine the ratio of PGF(2 alpha) and PGE(2) in the utero-ovarian vein plasma and the time of normal and preterm labour onset. The aim of this study was to simultaneously determine the expression of PGF and PGE synthases (PGFS and PGES) in gestational tissues at spontaneous and induced-preterm labour in sheep. Myometrial, endometrial and placental tissue were obtained from ewes in dexamethasone-induced preterm labour, age-matched control ewes, and ewes in spontaneous term labour for analysis of mRNA expression by real-time PCR. PGFS mRNA expression was significantly increased following dexamethasone-induced and spontaneous labour onset in placentome (P<0.01) but was unchanged in the myometrium and endometrium. In contrast, PGES mRNA expression remained unchanged or decreased. PGHS-2 mRNA expression was increased in all tissues examined in both dexamethasone-induced and spontaneous labour (P<0.001). Plasma PGE(2) and PGF(2 alpha) concentrations rose in both dexamethasone-induced and spontaneous labour with the ratio of PGF(2 alpha):PGE(2) increased with labour onset (P<0.05). These results are consistent with the hypothesis that the increased expression, of PGFS is responsible for the increased PGF(2 alpha):PGE(2) ratio and this, together with increased PGHS-2 expression, accounts for myometrial activity at labour onset. The findings point to PGFS expression as a key factor in regulating the uterotonic process in the sheep.