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Kidney Int. 2000 Apr;57(4):1412-7.

Glucocorticoids, 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, and fetal programming.

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Molecular Medicine Center, University of Edinburgh, Western General Hospital, Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom.


Epidemiological studies in many distinct human populations have associated low weight or thinness at birth with a substantially increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, including hypertension and insulin resistance/type 2 diabetes, in adult life. The concept of fetal "programming" has been advanced to explain this phenomenon. Prenatal glucocorticoid therapy reduces birthweight, and steroids are known to exert long-term organizational effects during specific "windows" of development. Therefore, we hypothesized that fetal overexposure to endogenous glucocorticoids might underpin the link between early life events and later disease. In rats, birthweight is reduced following prenatal exposure to the synthetic glucocorticoid dexamethasone, which readily crosses the placenta, or to carbenoxolone, which inhibits 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11beta-HSD2), the physiological feto-placental "barrier" to endogenous glucocorticoids. Although the offspring regain the weight deficit by weaning, as adults they exhibit permanent hypertension, hyperglycemia, and increased hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. Moreover, physiological variations in placental 11beta-HSD2 activity near term correlate directly with fetal weight. In humans, 11beta-HSD2 gene mutations produce a low birthweight, and some studies show reduced placental 11beta-HSD2 activity in association with intrauterine growth retardation. Moreover, low birthweight babies have higher plasma cortisol levels throughout adult life, indicating that hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis programming also occurs in humans. The molecular mechanisms of glucocorticoid programming are beginning to be unraveled and involve permanent and tissue-specific changes in the expression of key genes, notably of the glucocorticoid receptor itself. Thus, glucocorticoid programming may explain, in part, the association between fetal events and subsequent disorders in adult life.

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