Public Release: 

When preventing pre-eclampsia, a little carbon monoxide goes a long way

American Journal of Pathology

Kingston, Ontario -- Researchers have shown that carbon monoxide may prevent the placental cell death caused by oxidative stress injury, possibly averting the risks of pre-eclampsia. The report by Bainbridge et al., "Carbon monoxide inhibits hypoxia/reoxygenation-induced apoptosis and secondary necrosis in syncytiotrophoblast," appears in the September issue of The American Journal of Pathology.

Pre-eclampsia, a form of pregnancy-associated hypertension, affects 5-7% of pregnancies and poses serious risks for both mother and child. If maternal blood vessels at the placental barrier fail to remodel and adapt to the changing nutrient/oxygen needs of the growing fetus, the maternal blood pressure rises in an effort to improve nutrient delivery. This leads to oxidative stress and damage to the placenta, specifically to the syncytiotrophoblast. When syncytiotrophoblast cells die, they are released into the maternal circulation, initiating a cascade of inflammation that can damage maternal organs.

Interestingly, mothers who smoke cigarettes during pregnancy have a 33% decreased risk of developing pre-eclampsia compared to nonsmokers. New research questions whether the carbon monoxide found in cigarette smoke, and subsequently carried in a smoking mother's blood, may be the cause. Carbon monoxide, which is produced naturally by the body at low levels, possesses vessel-relaxing and cytoprotective activities that may prevent syncytiotrophoblast cell death and the resulting injury to fetus and mother.

Dr. Graeme Smith and colleagues examined this hypothesis using tissue from term human placentas obtained following elective caesarian section from nonsmoking, low-risk women. When cultured tissues were exposed to oxidative stress (hypoxia and re-oxygenation), syncytiotrophoblast cell death occurred. However, when tissues were treated with carbon monoxide, at levels similar to those found in blood of smoking mothers, cell death was significantly reduced. Further, carbon-monoxide-treated tissues did not demonstrate the hallmarks of syncytiotrphoblast cell injury and death, such as condensation of DNA, clumping of nuclei, and separation of cells from the rest of the tissue.

These studies have delineated possible mechanisms behind smoking's protective effects on pre-eclampsia and identified carbon monoxide as a possible treatment modality. The use of carbon monoxide in preventing hypoxia/re-oxygenation injury in organ transplantation underscores its potential usefulness here. Future studies will determine whether carbon monoxide can prevent syncytiotrophoblast death in animal models and whether other approaches similar to carbon monoxide may provide feasible protection.

Finally, while cigarette smoking during pregnancy has been correlated with lowered incidence of pre-eclampsia, any perceived benefit of smoking during pregnancy is outweighed by its risks: premature membrane rupture, preterm delivery, stillbirth, low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome.


This work was supported by the Strategic Training Initiative in Research in Reproductive Health Sciences, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Ontario, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Work was directed by Dr. Graeme Smith from the Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Bainbridge SA, Belkacemi L, Dickinson M, Graham CH, Smith GN. Carbon monoxide inhibits hypoxia/reoxygenation-induced apoptosis and secondary necrosis in syncytiotrophoblast. Am J Pathol 2006 169:774-783

For press copies of the articles, please contact Dr. Audra Cox at 301-634-7409 or the Journal Editorial Office at 301-634-7959.

For more information on Dr. Smith, please contact Nancy Dorrance at Queen's University:

1-613-533-2869 or

The American Journal of Pathology, the official journal of the American Society for Investigative Pathology (ASIP), seeks to publish high-quality original papers on the cellular and molecular mechanisms of disease. The editors accept manuscripts which report important findings on disease pathogenesis or basic biological mechanisms that relate to disease, without preference for a specific method of analysis. High priority is given to studies on human disease and relevant experimental models using cellular, molecular, biological, animal, chemical and immunological approaches in conjunction with morphology.

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