Background: Administration of antenatal steroids is standard of care for women assessed to be at imminent risk of preterm delivery. There is a marked variation in antenatal steroid dosing strategy, selection for treatment criteria, and agent choice worldwide. This, combined with very limited optimization of antenatal steroid use per se, means that treatment efficacy is highly variable, and the rate of respiratory distress syndrome is decreased to perhaps as low as 40%. In some cases, antenatal steroid use is associated with limited benefit and potential harm. Objective: We hypothesized that individual differences in maternofetal steroid exposure would contribute to observed variability in antenatal steroid treatment efficacy. Using a chronically catheterized sheep model of pregnancy, we aimed to explore the relationship between maternofetal steroid exposure and antenatal steroid treatment efficacy as determined by functional lung maturation in preterm lambs undergoing ventilation. Study Design: Ewes carrying a single fetus underwent surgery to catheterize a fetal and maternal jugular vein at 119 days’ gestation. Animals recovered for 24 hours before being randomized to either (1) a single maternal intramuscular injection of 2 mL saline (negative control group, n=10) or (2) a single maternal intramuscular injection of 0.25 mg/kg betamethasone phosphate plus acetate (antenatal steroid group, n=20). Serial maternal and fetal plasma samples were collected from each animal after 48 hours before fetuses were delivered and ventilated for 30 minutes. Total and free plasma betamethasone concentration was measured by mass spectrometry. Fetal lung tissue was collected for analysis using quantitative polymerase chain reaction. Results: One animal from the control group and one animal from the antenatal steroid group did not complete their treatment protocol and were removed from analyses. Animals in the antenatal steroid group were divided into a responder subgroup (n=12/19) and a nonresponder subgroup (n=7/19) using a cutoff of partial pressure of arterial CO2 at 30-minute ventilation within 2 standard deviations of the mean value from saline-treated negative control group animals. Although antenatal steroid improved fetal lung maturation in the undivided antenatal steroid group and in the responder subgroup both physiologically (blood gas– and ventilation-related data) and biochemically (messenger ribonucleic acid expression related to fetal lung maturation), these values did not improve relative to saline-treated control group animals in the antenatal steroid nonresponder subgroup. No differences in betamethasone distribution, clearance, or protein binding were identified between the antenatal steroid responder and nonresponder subgroups. Conclusion: This study correlated individual maternofetal steroid exposures with preterm lung maturation as determined by pulmonary ventilation. Herein, approximately 40% of preterm lambs exposed to antenatal steroids had lung maturation that was not significantly different to saline-treated control group animals. These nonresponsive animals received maternal and fetal betamethasone exposures identical to animals that had a significant improvement in functional lung maturation. These data suggest that the efficacy of antenatal steroid therapy is not solely determined by maternofetal drug levels and that individual fetal or maternal factors may play a role in determining treatment outcomes in response to glucocorticoid signaling.
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