The genetics of pre-eclampsia: a feto-placental or maternal problem?

J C Cross
Clinical Genetics 2003, 64 (2): 96-103
Pre-eclampsia is a potentially life-threatening disease of women during pregnancy leading to hypertension and proteinuria. It affects 1 in 15 pregnancies but, despite intense research efforts, the cause of the disease remains mysterious. Because pre-eclampsia only occurs during pregnancy and its symptoms resolve after delivery, factors from the placenta are thought to be involved. The role of the placenta could be production of 'abnormal' factors that initiate widespread inflammation and vaso-constriction. Alternatively, because the placenta normally contributes to maternal cardiovascular adaptations of pregnancy, it may be that normal placental functions fail in pre-eclampsia or that susceptibilities in the mother to hypertensive, vascular and/or renal disease prevent the appropriate normal responses to them. The potential contributions of both maternal and fetal genes to the onset of the disease have complicated the genetic analysis of the disease in humans. Recent studies have identified strains of transgenic and mutant mice that develop the hallmark features of pre-eclampsia-like disease - gestational hypertension, proteinuria and kidney lesions (glomerulosclerosis). Comparison of three different mouse models suggests that pre-eclampsia can be initiated by at least three independent mechanisms: pre-existing borderline maternal hypertension that is exacerbated by pregnancy (BPH/5 strain of mice), elevated levels of the vasoconstrictor angiotensin II in the maternal circulation by placental over-production of renin (renin/angiotensinogen transgenic mice), and placental pathology (p57Kip2 mutant mice). These findings imply that the pathogenesis of pre-eclampsia cannot be explained by a single mechanism. Therefore, segregation of the human disease into different subtypes may be a key first step in identifying genetic risk factors.

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