OBJECTIVES: To study the expression and the function of the 11beta-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase enzyme 1 (11beta-HSD1) and 2 (11beta-HSD2) in placenta and the fetal membranes from pregnancies with intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR) and from controls. METHODS: Amnion, chorion, decidua and cotyledon were separated from placenta; mRNA was analyzed by TaqMan real-time technology and proteins by Western blot; enzyme activities were measured by the conversion of 3H-cortisol to 3H-cortisone and vice versa. RESULTS: Predominant mRNA expression (p < 0.001) was found for 11beta-HSD1 in chorion and for 11beta-HSD2 in decidua and cotyledon. In pregnancies with IUGR, 11beta-HSD1 was upregulated in chorion (mean DeltaCt 11beta-HSD:18S mRNA 193.5 vs. 103.0 in controls respectively, p < 0.05) and 11beta-HSD2 was downregulated in decidua (mean DeltaCt 11beta-HSD2:18S mRNA 0.18 vs. 15.88 in controls respectively, p < 0.05). 11beta-HSD1 protein levels were reduced in amnion and 11beta-HSD1 and 11beta-HSD2 oxidase activity in decidua and cotyledon were reduced from pregnancies with IUGR. CONCLUSION: Reduced synthesis or activity of 11beta-HSD1 or 2 in cases of IUGR is shown in some but not in all tissues. The local mRNA expression of 11beta-HSD1 in chorion may reflect a mechanism on the post-transcriptional gene regulation to stimulate the formation of cortisone in IUGR. To provoke increasing activity with oxidase stimulators could be a future therapy in cases of IUGR.