Background: Meconium fatty acid ethyl esters (FAEE) constitute a biomarker of heavy fetal ethanol exposure. Our objective was to measure meconium FAEE in fetal sheep following daily, relatively moderate-dose ethanol exposure in late gestation, and to evaluate their utility in identifying fetal organ-system injury.
Methods: Pregnant ewes received ethanol (0.75 g/kg; n = 14) or saline (n = 8) via 1-h i.v. infusion daily during the third trimester equivalent, while additional pregnant sheep served as untreated controls (n = 6). The daily ethanol regimen produced similar maximal maternal and fetal plasma ethanol concentrations of 0.11-0.12 g/dL. Ewes and fetuses were euthanized shortly before term, and meconium was collected and analyzed for FAEE (ethyl palmitate, stearate, linoleate, and oleate).
Results: Meconium total FAEE concentration was significantly higher in ethanol-exposed fetuses compared with controls, and a positive cut-off of 0.0285 nmol total FAEE/g meconium had 93.3% sensitivity and specificity for detecting fetal ethanol exposure. When the studied animals (ethanol-exposed and controls) were classified according to meconium FAEE concentration, FAEE-positive and FAEE-negative groups frequently differed with respect to previously examined pathological endpoints, including nephron endowment, lung collagen deposition, cardiomyocyte maturation, and tropoelastin gene expression in cerebral vessels. Furthermore, in all studied animals as a group (ethanol-exposed and controls combined), meconium FAEE concentration was correlated with many of these pathological endpoints in fetal organs.
Conclusions: We conclude that, in fetal sheep, meconium FAEE could serve as a biomarker of daily ethanol exposure in late gestation and could identify fetuses with subtle ethanol-induced toxic effects in various organs. This study illustrates the potential for using meconium FAEE to identify neonates at risk for dysfunction of major organs following in-utero ethanol exposure that does not result in overt physical signs of ethanol teratogenicity.