Prenatal glucocorticoid exposure has been associated with a reduction in birth weight and postnatal alterations in glucose homeostasis and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function. The mechanisms underlying these responses are unknown, although changes in fetal hepatic development may play an important role. The fetal liver produces key regulators of fuel metabolism and of the developing HPA axis that are altered by glucocorticoids. The local availability of glucocorticoids is regulated, in part, by corticosteroid-binding protein (CBG), glucocorticoid receptors (GR) and by the enzyme 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11betaHSD), but the effects of maternal glucocorticoid administration on the expression of these genes in the fetal liver are unknown. 11betaHSD1 is the predominant form of this enzyme present in the liver and is responsible for the conversion of cortisone to cortisol. To determine if prenatal glucocorticoid exposure alters fetal hepatic regulation of CBG, 11betaHSD1 and GRs, we treated pregnant ewes with betamethasone (0.5 mg/kg) intramuscularly at 104, 111 and 118 days of gestation (term 150 days). Animals were killed at 125 or 146 days of gestation. Maternal betamethasone administration did not alter mean cord plasma glucose but significantly decreased cord plasma insulin levels (P<0.05) at 125 days of gestation. At 146 days of gestation, cord plasma glucose levels were significantly increased without alterations in insulin levels following maternal betamethasone treatment (P<0.05). Maternal betamethasone administration resulted in a significant increase in fetal hepatic 11betaHSD1 mRNA and protein levels at 125 days of gestation (P<0.05). CBG mRNA levels were significantly elevated over control at 125 days although levels of CBG protein were not significantly different. GR protein levels were not statistically different at either 125 or 146 days of gestation following glucocorticoid administration. These data suggest that prenatal betamethasone exposure in the ovine fetus results in alterations in cord glucose and insulin levels as well as alterations in hepatic 11betaHSD1 mRNA and protein expression. These changes in 11betaHSD1 increase the potential to generate local cortisol from circulating cortisone. We speculate that this could affect expression of glucocorticoid-dependent hepatic enzymes involved with the regulation of glucose production and HPA responsiveness.
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