Placental bed research: II. Functional and immunological investigations of the placental bed

Lynda K Harris, Marisa Benagiano, Mario M D'Elios, Ivo Brosens, Giuseppe Benagiano
American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 2019, 221 (5): 457-469
Research on the placenta as the interface between the mother and the fetus has been undertaken for some 150 years, and in 2 subsequent reviews, we attempted to summarize the situation. In the first part, we described the discovery of unique physiological modifications of the uteroplacental spiral arteries, enabling them to cope with a major increase in blood flow necessary to ensure proper growth of the fetus. These consist of an invasion of the arterial walls by trophoblast and a progressive disappearance of its normal structure. Researchers then turned to the pathophysiology of the placental bed and in particular to its maternal vascular tree. This yielded vital information for a better understanding of the so-called great obstetrical syndromes (preeclampsia, fetal growth restriction, premature labor and delivery, placenta accreta). Systematic morphological investigations of the uteroplacental vasculature showed that preeclampsia is associated with decreased or failed transformation of spiral arteries and the persistence of endothelial and smooth muscle cells in segments of their myometrial portion. Here we report on recent functional investigations of the placental bed, including in situ biophysical studies of uteroplacental blood flow and vascular resistance, and manipulation of uteroplacental perfusion. These new methodologies have provided a novel way of identifying pregnancies in which remodeling is impaired. In animals it is now possible to manipulate uteroplacental blood flow, leading to an enhancement of fetal growth; this opens the way to trials in abnormal human pregnancies. In this second part, we explored a new, extremely important area of research that deals with the role of specific subsets of leukocytes and macrophages in the placental bed. The human first-trimester decidua is rich in leukocytes called uterine natural killer cells. Both macrophages and uterine natural killer cells increase in number from the secretory endometrium to early pregnancy and play a critical role in mediating the process of spiral artery transformation by inducing initial structural changes. It seems therefore that vascular remodeling of spiral arteries is initiated independently of trophoblast invasion. Dysregulation of the immune system may lead to reproductive failure or pregnancy complications, and in this respect, recent studies have advanced our understanding of the mechanisms regulating immunological tolerance during pregnancy, with several mechanisms being proposed for the development of tolerance to the semiallogeneic fetus. In particular, these include several strategies by which the trophoblast avoids maternal recognition. Finally, an important new dimension is being explored: the likelihood that pregnancy syndromes and impaired uteroplacental vascular remodeling may be linked to future maternal and even the child's cardiovascular disease risk. The functional evidence underlying these observations will be discussed.


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