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O.R. Vaughan, T.L. Powell and T. Jansson

Excess maternal glucocorticoids reduce placental amino acid transport and fetal growth, but whether these effects are mediated directly on the syncytiotrophoblast remains unknown. We hypothesised that glucocorticoids inhibit mechanistic target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling and insulin-stimulated System A amino acid transport activity in primary human trophoblast (PHT) cells. Syncytialised PHTs, isolated from term placentas (n = 15), were treated with either cortisol (1 μM) or dexamethasone (1 μM), ± insulin (1 nM) for 24 h. Compared to vehicle, dexamethasone increased mRNA expression, but not protein abundance of the mTOR suppressor, regulated in development and DNA damage response 1 (REDD1). Dexamethasone enhanced insulin receptor abundance, activated mTOR complex 1 and 2 signaling and stimulated System A activity, measured by Na+-dependent 14C-methylaminoisobutyric acid uptake. Cortisol also activated mTORC1 without significantly altering insulin receptor or mTORC2 read-outs or System A activity. Both glucocorticoids downregulated expression of the glucocorticoid receptor and the System A transporter genes SLC38A1, SLC38A2 and SLC38A4, without altering SNAT1 or SNAT4 protein abundance. Neither cortisol nor dexamethasone affected System L amino acid transport. Insulin further enhanced mTOR and System A activity, irrespective of glucocorticoid treatment and despite downregulating its own receptor. Contrary to our hypothesis, glucocorticoids do not inhibit mTOR signaling or cause insulin resistance in cultured PHT cells. We speculate that glucocorticoids stimulate System A activity in PHT cells by activating mTOR signaling, which regulates amino acid transporters post-translationally. We conclude that downregulation of placental nutrient transport in vivo following excess maternal glucocorticoids is not mediated by a direct effect on the placenta.