AJOG: An integrated model of preeclampsia: a multifaceted syndrome of the maternal cardiovascular-placental-fetal array

Maternal tolerance of the semiallogenic fetus necessitates conciliation of competing interests. Viviparity evolved with a placenta to mediate the needs of the fetus and maternal adaptation to the demands of pregnancy and to ensure optimal survival for both entities. The maternal-fetal interface is imagined as a 2-dimensional porous barrier between the mother and fetus, when in fact it is an intricate multidimensional array of tissues and resident and circulating factors at play, encompassing the developing fetus, the growing placenta, the changing decidua, and the dynamic maternal cardiovascular system. Pregnancy triggers dramatic changes to maternal hemodynamics to meet the growing demands of the developing fetus. Nearly a century of extensive research into the development and function of the placenta has revealed the role of placental dysfunction in the great obstetrical syndromes, among them preeclampsia. Recently, a debate has arisen questioning the primacy of the placenta in the etiology of preeclampsia, asserting that the maternal cardiovascular system is the instigator of the disorder.
It was the clinical observation of the high rate of preeclampsia in hydatidiform mole that initiated the focus on the placenta in the etiology of the disease. Over many years of research, shallow trophoblast invasion with deficient remodeling of the maternal spiral arteries into vessels of higher capacitance and lower resistance has been recognized as hallmarks of the preeclamptic milieu. The lack of the normal decrease in uterine artery resistance is likewise predictive of preeclampsia. In abdominal pregnancies, however, an extrauterine pregnancy develops without remodeling of the spiral arteries, yet there is reduced resistance in the uterine arteries and distant vessels, such as the maternal ophthalmic arteries.
Proponents of the maternal cardiovascular model of preeclampsia point to the observed maternal hemodynamic adaptations to pregnancy and maladaptation in gestational hypertension and preeclampsia and how the latter resembles the changes associated with cardiac disease states.
Recognition of the importance of the angiogenic-antiangiogenic balance between placental-derived growth factor and its receptor soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase-1 and disturbance in this balance by an excess of a circulating isoform, soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase-1, which competes for and disrupts the proangiogenic receptor binding of the vascular endothelial growth factor and placental-derived growth factor, opened new avenues of research into the pathways to normal adaptation of the maternal cardiovascular and other systems to pregnancy and maladaptation in preeclampsia.
The significance of the “placenta vs heart” debate goes beyond the academic: understanding the mutuality of placental and maternal cardiac etiologies of preeclampsia has far-reaching clinical implications for designing prevention strategies, such as aspirin therapy, prediction and surveillance through maternal hemodynamic studies or serum placental-derived growth factor and soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase-1 testing, and possible treatments to attenuate the effects of insipient preeclampsia on women and their fetuses, such as RNAi therapy to counteract excess soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase-1 produced by the placenta.
In this review, we will present an integrated model of the maternal-placental-fetal array that delineates the commensality among the constituent parts, showing how a disruption in any component or nexus may lead to the multifaceted syndrome of preeclampsia.