Hypoxia-reoxygenation: A potent inducer of apoptotic changes in the human placenta and possible etiological factor in preeclampsia

Tai Ho Hung, Jeremy N. Skepper, D. Stephen Charnock-Jones, Graham J. Burton*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal Article peer-review

347 Scopus citations


Preeclampsia is a severe disorder of human pregnancy characterized by generalized activation of maternal endothelial cells. Oxidative stress of the placenta is considered a key intermediary step, precipitating deportation of apoptotic fragments into the maternal circulation, but the cause remains unknown. We hypothesize that intermittent placental perfusion, secondary to deficient trophoblast invasion of the endometrial arteries, leads to an ischemia-reperfusion-type insult. We therefore tested whether hypoxia-reoxygenation (H/R) in vitro stimulates apoptosis in human placental tissues compared with controls kept hypoxic or normoxic throughout. After H/R, release of cytochrome c from mitochondria was significantly increased and was associated with intense immunolabeling for active caspase 3 in the syncytiotrophoblast and fetal endothelial cells. There was also increased labeling of syncytiotrophoblastic nuclei for cleaved poly (ADP-ribose) polymerase (PARP), and higher cytosolic concentrations of cleaved PARP fragment were detected by Western blot. Syncytiotrophoblastic nuclei displayed increased chromatin condensation, and a significantly greater percentage was TUNEL positive. These changes were accompanied by increased lactate dehydrogenase release into the medium. Preadministration of the free radical scavenger, desferrioxamine, reduced cytochrome c release and the TUNEL-positive index, suggesting generation of hydroxyl radicals mediates these processes. By contrast, hypoxia alone caused a smaller increase in the TUNEL-positive index, and the majority of syncytiotrophoblastic nuclei displayed karyolysis, whereas normoxic controls remained euchromatic. We conclude that H/R stimulates apoptotic changes within the syncytiotrophoblast, whereas hypoxia principally induces necrosis. The quality of placental perfusion may therefore be a more important factor in the pathophysiology of preeclampsia than the absolute quantity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1274-1281
Number of pages8
JournalCirculation Research
Issue number12
StatePublished - 28 06 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Apoptosis ischemia-reperfusion
  • Injury
  • Oxidative stress
  • Placenta
  • Preeclampsia


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