Males have a higher morbidity and mortality for neonatal respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) than females, and respond less well to hormone therapy designed to prevent RDS by stimulating fetal pulmonary surfactant production. We have shown that male fetuses exhibit delayed production of pulmonary surfactant. We tested the hypothesis that the sex difference in fetal pulmonary surfactant production is under hormonal control. Pulmonary surfactant was measured as the saturated phosphatidylcholine/sphingomyelin ratio (SPC/S) in the lung lavage of fetal rabbits at 26 d gestation. There was an association between the sex of neighboring fetuses and the SPC/S ratio of the female fetuses, such that with one or two male neighbors, respectively, females had decreasing SPC/S ratios (P < 0.05). We injected dihydrotestosterone (DHT) into pregnant does from day 12 through day 26 of gestation in doses of 0.1, 1.0, 10, and 25 mg/d, and measured the SPC/S ratio in fetal lung lavage on day 26. In groups with the normal sex difference in fetal serum androgen levels (controls, 0.1 mg DHT/d) the normal sex difference in the SPC/S ratio was also present (females > males, P = 0.03). In the 1-mg/d group there was no sex difference in androgen levels and the sex difference in the SPC/S ratio was also eliminated as the female values were lowered to the male level. Higher doses of DHT (10, 25 mg/d) further reduced the SPC/S ratios. We injected the anti-androgen Flutamide (25 mg/d) from day 12 through day 26 of gestation. This treatment eliminated the normal sex difference in the lung lavage SPC/S ratio by increasing the male ratios to that of the females. We conclude that androgens inhibit fetal pulmonary surfactant production. An understanding of the mechanism of the sex difference in surfactant production may allow development of therapy that is as effective in males as in females for preventing RDS.
Heber C. Nielsen, Howard M. Zinman, John S. Torday