Actions of placental and fetal adrenal steroid hormones in primate pregnancy

Endocr Rev. 1995 Oct;16(5):608-48. doi: 10.1210/edrv-16-5-608.


It is clear that steroid hormones of placental and fetal adrenal origin have critically important roles in regulating key physiological events essential to the maintenance of pregnancy and development of the fetus for extrauterine life. Thus, progesterone has suppressive actions on lymphocyte proliferation and activity and on the immune system to prevent rejection of the developing fetus and placenta (see Fig. 9). Progesterone also suppresses the calcium-calmodulin-MLCK system and thus activity of uterine smooth muscle, thereby promoting myometrial quiescence to ensure the maintenance of pregnancy. Estrogen enhances uteroplacental blood flow and possibly placental neovascularization to provide optimal gas exchange and the nutrients required for the rapidly developing fetus and placenta. In turn, estrogen has specific stimulatory effects on the receptor-mediated uptake of LDL by, and P-450scc activity within, syncytiotrophoblasts, thus promoting the biosynthesis of progesterone. Moreover, there is an estrogen-dependent developmental regulation of expression of the LDL receptor and NAD-dependent 11 beta-HSD in the placenta, processes reflecting functional/biochemical differentiation of the trophoblast cells with advancing gestation. The increase in 11 beta-HSD causes a change in transplacental corticosteroid metabolism, which results in activation of the HPAA in the fetus. As a result of this cascade of events, there is an increase in expression of pituitary POMC/ACTH and key enzymes, e.g. 3 beta-HSD and P-450 17 alpha-hydroxylase, important for de novo cortisol formation by, and consequently maturation of, the fetal adrenal gland. In turn, cortisol has well defined actions on surfactant biosynthesis and consequently fetal lung maturation, as well as effects on placental CRH/POMC release, which may be important to the initiation of labor. At midgestation, estrogen also selectively feeds back on the fetal adrenal to suppress DHA and maintain physiologically normal levels of estrogen. Preparation of the breast for lactation and nourishment of the newborn appears to involve a multifactorial system of regulation that includes estrogen. It is apparent, therefore, that autocrine/paracrine, as well as endocrine, systems of regulation are operative within the fetoplacental unit during primate pregnancy. A major goal of this review has been to illustrate the critically close functional communication existing between the developing placenta and fetus in the biosynthesis and the actions of steroid hormones during primate pregnancy. The functional interaction of the human fetal adrenal and placenta with respect to the biosynthesis of estrogen was demonstrated many years ago. However, the recent studies presented in this review show that the endocrine interaction between the fetus and placenta is more extensive, involving complex physiological regulatory mechanisms. Thus, as illustrated in Fig. 9, estrogen, acting via its receptor within the placenta and other reproductive tissues, orchestrates the dynamic interchange between the placenta and fetus responsible for the developmental regulation of the biosynthesis of the various steroid and peptide hormones and their receptors necessary for the maintenance of pregnancy and development of a live newborn. It would appear, therefore, that the immediate and long range challenges in this area of reproductive endocrinology are to employ in vitro molecular and in vivo experimental approaches simultaneously to elucidate the nature of these complex interactions and define the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying these important regulatory events.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development
  • Estrogens / physiology
  • Female
  • Fetus / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Placenta / blood supply
  • Placenta / metabolism*
  • Pregnancy / immunology
  • Pregnancy / physiology*
  • Primates / physiology*
  • Progesterone / physiology
  • Uterus / blood supply
  • Uterus / physiology


  • Adrenal Cortex Hormones
  • Estrogens
  • Progesterone