BACKGROUND: Antenatal corticosteroids are among the most important and widely used interventions to improve outcomes for preterm infants. Antenatal corticosteroid dosing regimens remain unoptimized and without maternal weight-adjusted dosing. We, and others, have hypothesized that, once a low concentration of maternofetal steroid exposure is achieved and maintained, the duration of the steroid exposure determines treatment efficacy. Using a sheep model of pregnancy, we tested the relationship among steroid dose, duration of exposure, and treatment efficacy.
OBJECTIVE: The study was conducted to investigate the relative importance of duration and magnitude of fetal corticosteroid exposure to mature the preterm fetal ovine lung.
STUDY DESIGN: Ewes with single fetuses at 120 days gestation received an intravenous bolus (loading dose) followed by a maintenance infusion of betamethasone phosphate to target 12-hour fetal plasma betamethasone concentrations of (1) 20 ng/mL, (2) 10 ng/mL, or (3) 2 ng/mL. In a subsequent experiment, fetal plasma betamethasone concentrations were targeted at 2 ng/mL for 26 hours. Negative control animals received sterile saline solution. Positive control animals received 2 intramuscular injections of 0.25 mg/kg Celestone Chronodose (betamethasone phosphate + betamethasone acetate) spaced at 24 hours. Preterm lambs were delivered surgically and ventilated 48 hours after treatment commenced. Maternal and fetal plasma betamethasone concentrations were confirmed by mass spectrometry in a parallel study of chronically catheterized, corticosteroid-treated ewes and fetuses.
RESULTS: The loading and maintenance doses were achieved and maintained the desired fetal plasma betamethasone concentrations of approximately 20, 10, and 2 ng/mL for 12 hours. Compared with the 12-hour infusion-treated animals, lambs from the positive control (2 intramuscular doses of 0.25 mg/kg Celestone Chronodose) group had the greatest functional lung maturation (compliance, gas exchange, arterial pH) and molecular evidence of maturation (glucocorticoid receptor signaling activation), despite having maximum fetal plasma betamethasone concentrations 2.5 times lower than animals in the 20 ng/mL betamethasone infusion group. Lambs from the 12-hour 2-ng/mL betamethasone infusion group had little functional lung maturation. In contrast, lambs from the 26-hour 2-ng/mL betamethasone infusion group had functional lung maturation equivalent to lambs from the positive control group.
CONCLUSION: In preterm lambs that were exposed to antenatal corticosteroids, high maternofetal plasma betamethasone concentrations did not correlate with improved lung maturation. The largest and most consistent improvements in lung maturation were in animals that were exposed to either the clinical course of Celestone Chronodose or a low-dose betamethasone phosphate infusion to achieve a fetal plasma betamethasone concentration of approximately 2 ng/mL for 26 hours. The duration of low-concentration maternofetal steroid exposure, not total dose or peak drug exposure, is a key determinant for antenatal corticosteroids efficacy. These findings underscore the need to develop an optimized steroid dosing regimen that may improve both the efficacy and safety of antenatal corticosteroids therapy.