Congenital adrenal hyperplasia: update on prenatal diagnosis and treatment

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. Apr-Jun 1999;69(1-6):19-29. doi: 10.1016/s0960-0760(99)00059-x.


The diagnostic term congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) applies to a family of inherited disorders of steroidogenesis caused by an abnormality in one of the five enzymatic steps necessary in the conversion of cholesterol to cortisol. The enzyme defects are translated as autosomal recessive traits, with the enzyme deficient in more than 90% of CAH cases being 21-hydroxylase. In the classical forms of CAH (simple virilizing and salt wasting), owing to 21-hydroxylase deficiency (21-OHD), androgen excess causes external genital ambiguity in newborn females and progressive postnatal virilization in males and females. Non-classical 21-OHD (NC21OHD) refers to the condition in which partial deficiencies of 21-hydroxylation produce less extreme hyperandrogenemia and milder symptoms. Females do not demonstrate genital ambiguity at birth. The gene for adrenal 21-hydroxylase, CYP21, is located on chromosome 6p in the area of HLA genes. Specific mutations may be correlated with a given degree of enzymatic compromise and the clinical form of 21-OHD. NC21OHD patients are predicted to have mild mutations on both alleles or one severe and one mild mutation of the 21-OH locus (compound heterozygote). In most cases the mutation groups represent one diagnosis (e.g., Del/Del with SW CAH), however we have found several non-correlations of genotype to phenotype. Non-classical and classical patients were found within the same mutation group. Phenotypic variability within each mutation group has important implications for prenatal diagnosis and treatment. Prenatal treatment of 21-OHD with dexamethasone has been utilized for a decade. An algorithm has been developed for prenatal diagnosis and treatment, which, when followed closely, has been safe for both the mother and the fetus, and has been effective in preventing ambiguous genitalia in the affected female newborn. This is an instance of an inborn metabolic error successfully treated prenatally. Since 1986, prenatal diagnosis and treatment of congenital adrenal hyperplasia due to 21-hydroxylase deficiency (21-OHD) has been carried out in 403 pregnancies in The New York Hospital Cornell Medical Center. In 280, diagnoses were made by amniocentesis, while 123 were diagnosed using chorionic villus sampling. Of the 403 pregnancies evaluated, 84 babies were affected with classical 21-OHD. Of these, 52 were females, 36 of whom were treated prenatally with dexamethasone. Dexamethasone administered at or before 10 weeks of gestation (23 affected female fetuses) was effective in reducing virilization. Thirteen cases had affected female sibs (Prader stages 1-4); 6 of these fetuses were born with entirely normal female genitalia, while 6 were significantly less virilized (Prader stages 1-2) than their sibs, and one was Prader stage 3. Eight newborns had male sibs: 4 were born with normal genitalia, 3 were Prader stages 1-2, and 3 were born Prader stages 3-4. No significant or enduring side effects were noted in either the mothers or the fetuses, indicating that dexamethasone treatment is safe. Prenatally treated newborns did not differ in weight, length, or head circumference from untreated, unaffected newborns. Based on our experience, proper prenatal diagnosis and treatment of 21-OHD is effective in significantly reducing or eliminating virilization in the newborn female. This spares the affected female the consequences of genital ambiguity of genital surgery, sex misassignment, and gender confusion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex / enzymology
  • Adrenal Cortex / metabolism
  • Adrenal Hyperplasia, Congenital / diagnosis*
  • Adrenal Hyperplasia, Congenital / drug therapy*
  • Adrenal Hyperplasia, Congenital / epidemiology
  • Algorithms
  • Dexamethasone / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • Fetal Diseases / diagnosis
  • Fetal Diseases / drug therapy
  • Fetal Diseases / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Incidence
  • Male
  • Mutation
  • Prenatal Diagnosis*
  • Steroid 21-Hydroxylase / genetics
  • Steroids / biosynthesis


  • Steroids
  • Dexamethasone
  • Steroid 21-Hydroxylase