OBJECTIVE: Prior studies suggest that fetal plasma cholesterol is regulated in part by the rate of uptake and utilization of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol by the fetal adrenals for use in steroid biosynthesis. Direct evidence for this phenomenon and the kinetics of this process is, however, virtually impossible to obtain in a controlled experiment in the developing human. In the current study we sought to take advantage of the anticipated transient inhibition of the hypothalamic- pituitary-adrenal axis that occurs after antenatal therapy with glucocorticosteroids, to evaluate the temporal relationship between fetal adrenal steroids and plasma lipoprotein cholesterol levels in umbilical cord blood at delivery. STUDY DESIGN: Umbilical cord serum was obtained at delivery from 136 infants (30.5 ± 2.7 weeks' gestation) who previously had been treated in utero with betamethasone, 12 mg per 12 or 24 hours for one or two doses and from 308 preterm infants (30.5 ± 2.1 weeks) who had not been exposed to such therapy. We quantified the concentrations of dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate and cortisol as representative fetal adrenal steroids and also measured the total cholesterol and apolipoprotein B; the relationship between the steroids and lipids as a function of the interval between initial treatment and delivery was analyzed. RESULTS: Umbilical cord levels of dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate and cortisol were significantly reduced within the first 24 hours after initial treatment and remained significantly lower than in control infants through 4 days after initial treatment. In contrast, serum levels of cholesterol were significantly increased 3 to 4 days after treatment but fell on day 5. Serum levels of apolipoprotein B generally followed the same pattern as cholesterol. Cholesterol levels also were higher than normal in infants delivered >1 week after initial betamethasone treatment. CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study are consistent with the view that the plasma cholesterol pool in the fetus is regulated, at least in part, by the rate of uptake of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and utilization by the fetal adrenals as substrate for steroidogenesis. Betamethasone also may influence cholesterol and lipoprotein synthesis in the fetus.