Transport of Proteins Across the Human Placenta


Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Berne, Schanzeneckstrasse 1, CH-3012 Berne, Switzerland.


PROBLEM: The transport of various proteins across the human placenta was investigated by comparing maternal and fetal concentrations of tetanus antigen (TT-AG), anti-tetanus (TT)-immunoglobulin G (IgG) (following maternal vaccination), IgA, human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG), human placental lactogen (hPL), and alpha-fetoprotein (AFP) at term.

METHOD OF STUDY: The concentrations of the six proteins were determined using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay in serum of maternal venous and umbilical (fetal) vein samples obtained at delivery from uncomplicated term pregnancies (n = 16).

RESULTS: The ratios (mean ± standard deviation) of fetal (umbilical) to maternal level were 1.41 ± 0.33 (anti-TT-IgG), 0.91 ± 0.37 (TT-AG), 0.002 ± 0.001 (IgA), 0.003 ± 0.001 (hCG), and 0.008 ± 0.004 (hPL), while the maternal:fetal concentration ratio of AFP was 0.002 ± 0.002. IgA, hCG, hPL, and AFP showed a close correlation between maternal and fetal levels varying between r2 = 0.47 to 0.73 (P < 0.004–0.0001). Because AFP is produced by the fetus while IgA originates in the mother, the appearance of small amounts of these two proteins in the maternal or fetal compartment, respectively, suggests a slow rate of diffusion following a high concentration gradient. The detection of hCG and hPL in fetal serum is also interpreted as diffusion from the maternal into the fetal blood. Anti-TT-IgG has a significantly higher concentration in the fetal as compared with the maternal serum, which is in line with the well-documented active transfer of IgG. Fetal TT-antigen levels were similar to maternal concentrations, showing a close correlation (r2 = 0.74, P < 0.0001) between the two proteins.

CONCLUSIONS: The correlation between maternal and fetal concentrations of various proteins like IgA (150,000 Da), hCG (42,000 Da), and hPL (21,000 Da) suggests passive diffusion of these macromolecules across the placenta from the maternal to the fetal side, albeit at a slow rate. A similar process is postulated for AFP (70,000 Da) diffusing in the opposite direction from the fetus to the mother. There was no significant difference between the transplacental fetomaternal gradient of IgA and hCG and the maternal-fetal gradient of AFP. In view of the substantially larger volume of circulating maternal as compared with fetal blood, a significantly higher rate of crossing of AFP as compared with the other proteins must be assumed. It is uncertain whether a difference in the rate of transplacental transfer in the two directions or an additional source of AFP production in the maternal compartment explains the high maternal level. Anti-TT-IgG concentration is significantly higher in fetal than in maternal serum suggesting active transfer from the mother to the fetus. Furthermore, there is considerable transfer of TT-AG and a close correlation of fetal:maternal ratios of anti-TT-IgG (150,000 Da) and TT-AG (150,000 Da) could be an indication for a specific transfer of the antigen antibody complex.