The type 2 isoform of 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11beta-HSD2), which inactivates cortisol (F) to cortisone (E), has been suggested to play a role in the ontogeny of the fetal pituitary-adrenal axis and also protect the developing fetus from the deleterious effects of circulating maternal glucocorticoids. The abundance of 11beta-HSD2 in the placenta and other fetal tissues was inferred from the F/E ratio in 17 term deliveries in both umbilical arterial (1.73 +/- 0.24, mean +/- SE) and umbilical venous blood (1.16 +/- 0.14) compared with adult peripheral venous blood (7.76 +/- 0.57, n = 70). Using sensitive assays for 11beta-HSD2 and an in-house human 11beta-HSD2 antibody, the expression and activity of this enzyme in fresh frozen human placenta increased progressively from first (8-12 weeks, n = 16) and second (13-20 weeks, n = 9) to third trimester (term) pregnancies (39-40 weeks, n = 50). Placental 11beta-HSD2 activity was significantly reduced in deliveries complicated by intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) [25-36 weeks, n = 12, activity 380 pmol/mg/h median (225-671; 95% confidence interval)], compared with the term deliveries [888 (725-1362)] and with appropriately grown pre-term deliveries [27-36 weeks, n = 14, activity 810 (585-1269)], P < 0.05. In human pregnancy placental 11beta-HSD2 activity increases markedly in the third trimester of pregnancy at a time when maternal circulating levels of glucocorticoid are rising. The finding of attenuated placental 11beta-HSD2 activity in IUGR suggests that glucocorticoids may, in part, contribute to impaired fetal growth and that this is closely controlled in normal gestation through placental 11beta-HSD2 expression.