Identification of isolated congenital heart block (CHB) predicts, with near certainty, the presence of maternal anti-SSA/Ro antibodies; however, the 2% incidence of CHB in first offspring of anti-SSA/Ro+ mothers, 20% recurrence in subsequent pregnancies, and discordance in identical twins suggest that an environmental factor amplifies the effect of the antibody. Accordingly, this study was carried out to explore the hypothesis that hypoxia potentiates a profibrosing phenotype of the fetal cardiac fibroblast.


Evidence of an effect of hypoxia was sought by immunohistologic evaluation of CHB-affected fetal heart tissue and by determination of erythropoietin levels in cord blood. The in vitro effect of hypoxia on gene expression and phenotype in fibroblasts derived from fetal hearts and lungs was investigated by Affymetrix arrays, quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR), immunofluorescence, and immunoblotting.


In vivo hypoxic exposure was supported by the prominent intracellular fibroblast expression of hypoxia-inducible factor 1α in conduction tissue from 2 fetuses in whom CHB led to death. The possibility that hypoxia was sustained was suggested by significantly elevated erythropoietin levels in cord blood from CHB-affected, as compared with unaffected, anti-SSA/Ro–exposed neonates. In vitro exposure of cardiac fibroblasts to hypoxia resulted in transdifferentiation to myofibroblasts (a scarring phenotype), as demonstrated on immunoblots and immunofluorescence by increased expression of smooth muscle actin (SMA), an effect not seen in lung fibroblasts. Hypoxia-exposed cardiac fibroblasts expressed adrenomedullin at 4-fold increased levels, as determined by Affymetrix array, quantitative PCR, and immunofluorescence, thus focusing attention on cAMP as a modulator of fibrosis. MDL12,330A, an adenylate cyclase inhibitor that lowers the levels of cAMP, increased expression of fibrosis-related proteins (mammalian target of rapamycin, SMA, plasminogen activator inhibitor type 1, and type I collagen), while the cAMP activator forskolin attenuated transforming growth factor β–elicited fibrosing end points in the cardiac fibroblasts.


These findings provide evidence that hypoxia may amplify the injurious effects of anti-SSA/Ro antibodies. Modulation of cAMP may be a key component in the scarring phenotype. Further assessment of the susceptibility of cardiac fibroblasts to cAMP modulation offers a new research direction in CHB.