The Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome (SLOS) is a recessively inherited birth disorder caused by a defect in 7-dehydrocholesterol (3beta-hydroxysteroid) delta7-reductase, the final enzyme in cholesterol biosynthesis. To investigate in vivo regulation of the cholesterol biosynthetic pathway in SLOS, we measured hepatic microsomal sterol concentrations and activities of several key enzymes in the pathway, including HMG-CoA synthase, HMG-CoA reductase, squalene synthase and 7-dehydrocholesterol delta7-reductase in liver specimens from a patient with SLOS and 11 controls. Hepatic microsomal 7-dehydrocholesterol delta7-reductase activity in the patient was less than 1% of the control mean, and decreased cholesterol concentration and markedly increased 7- and 8-dehydrocholesterol concentrations were observed in the patient's microsomes. HMG-CoA synthase and squalene synthase activities in the patient were upregulated to 149% and 532%, respectively, while the activity of HMG-CoA reductase, the rate-limiting enzyme in the pathway, was reduced to 39% of the control mean. Downregulation of HMG-CoA reductase activity in SLOS was supported by measuring plasma levels of mevalonic acid, the immediate product of HMG-CoA reductase. The levels in SLOS patients (n = 9) were significantly low compared with age-matched controls (n = 8) (12+/-2 vs 28 + 6nmol/L, p < 0.05). These results suggest that in most SLOS patients in vivo HMG-CoA reductase is not stimulated in spite of blocked cholesterol biosynthetic pathway and reduced plasma and hepatic cholesterol concentrations.