Prenatal diagnosis/treatment in families at risk for infants with steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency (congenital adrenal hyperplasia)

J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 1992 Mar;41(3-8):445-51. doi: 10.1016/0960-0760(92)90370-x.


The most common enzymatic defect of steroid synthesis is adrenal steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency. Inhibited formation of cortisol causes increased pituitary release of ACTH, driving the adrenal cortex to overproduce androgens, whose synthesis does not involve the 21-hydroxylase enzyme. This hormonal setting is established in the embryonic period and affects development of genetic females, misdirecting differentiation of the external genitalia toward male type. At birth, the genitalia are visibly ambiguous (enlarged clitoris, fused labia) or in some cases even male in appearance (phallus with urethral opening, rugated scrotal sac), leading to wrong sex assignment. Adrenal steroid 21-hydroxylase deficiency is the most common basis of female pseudohermaphroditism. These females, however, have normal fertility and potential for gestation (gonads are functional and the internal duct-derived structures are well-formed), thus the sex of rearing should always be female. Management is by life-long hormonal (glucocorticoid) replacement, with surgical correction of the genital ambiguity. Prenatal diagnosis of 21-hydroxylase deficiency, first possible by steroid assay of the amniotic fluid, has utilized HLA typing for identification of loci (antigens B and DR) in close linkage with the 21-hydroxylase gene, and now increasingly relies on DNA analysis for linked HLA or C4 genes or for mutant 21-hydroxylase alleles directly by molecular genetic techniques. The most recent clinical advance is a program of combined prenatal diagnosis with karyotyping and suppression of fetal androgen production in genetic females by steroid administration to the mother. This is the first instance of an inborn metabolic error to be prenatally treated. A series of 85 managed pregnancies is reported on, including accuracy of diagnosis, response of the mother to steroid treatment, and outcome for treated and untreated male and female fetuses (of 77 born by 6/91). Prenatal diagnosis by current techniques is accurate. Normal growth and development patterns postnatally suggest that dexamethasone treatment is safe.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Hyperplasia, Congenital* / diagnosis*
  • Adrenal Hyperplasia, Congenital* / drug therapy*
  • Adrenal Hyperplasia, Congenital* / embryology
  • Amniocentesis
  • Dexamethasone / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Gestational Age
  • HLA Antigens / analysis
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Diagnosis*
  • Risk Factors
  • Treatment Outcome


  • HLA Antigens
  • Dexamethasone