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J Cell Biol. 1989 August 1; 109(2): 891–902.
PMCID: PMC2115717

Adhesive and degradative properties of human placental cytotrophoblast cells in vitro

Abstract

Human fetal development depends on the embryo rapidly gaining access to the maternal circulation. The trophoblast cells that form the fetal portion of the human placenta have solved this problem by transiently exhibiting certain tumor-like properties. Thus, during early pregnancy fetal cytotrophoblast cells invade the uterus and its arterial network. This process peaks during the twelfth week of pregnancy and declines rapidly thereafter, suggesting that the highly specialized, invasive behavior of the cytotrophoblast cells is closely regulated. Since little is known about the actual mechanisms involved, we developed an isolation procedure for cytotrophoblasts from placentas of different gestational ages to study their adhesive and invasive properties in vitro. Cytotrophoblasts isolated from first, second, and third trimester human placentas were plated on the basement membrane-like extracellular matrix produced by the PF HR9 teratocarcinoma cell line. Cells from all trimesters expressed the calcium-dependent cell adhesion molecule cell-CAM 120/80 (E-cadherin) which, in the placenta, is specific for cytotrophoblasts. However, only the first trimester cytotrophoblast cells degraded the matrices on which they were cultured, leaving large gaps in the basement membrane substrates and releasing low molecular mass 3H-labeled matrix components into the medium. No similar degradative activity was observed when second or third trimester cytotrophoblast cells, first trimester human placental fibroblasts, or the human choriocarcinoma cell lines BeWo and JAR were cultured on radiolabeled matrices. To begin to understand the biochemical basis of this degradative behavior, the substrate gel technique was used to analyze the cell-associated and secreted proteinase activities expressed by early, mid, and late gestation cytotrophoblasts. Several gelatin-degrading proteinases were uniquely expressed by early gestation, invasive cytotrophoblasts, and all these activities could be abolished by inhibitors of metalloproteinases. By early second trimester, the time when cytotrophoblast invasion rapidly diminishes in vivo, the proteinase pattern of the cytotrophoblasts was identical to that of term, noninvasive cells. These results are the first evidence suggesting that specialized, temporally regulated metalloproteinases are involved in trophoblast invasion of the uterus. Since the cytotrophoblasts from first trimester and later gestation placentas maintain for several days the temporally regulated degradative behavior displayed in vivo, the short-term cytotrophoblast outgrowth culture system described here should be useful in studying some of the early events in human placen

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