Jane Salmon and colleagues studied 250 pregnant patients with SLE and/or antiphospholipid antibodies and found an association of risk variants in complement regulatory proteins in patients
who developed preeclampsia, as well as in preeclampsia patients lacking autoimmune disease.
Pregnancy in women with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) or antiphospholipid antibodies (APL Ab)—autoimmune conditions characterized by complement-mediated injury—is associated with increased risk of preeclampsia and miscarriage. Our previous studies in mice indicate that complement activation targeted to the placenta drives angiogenic imbalance and placental insufficiency.
Methods and Findings
We use PROMISSE, a prospective study of 250 pregnant patients with SLE and/or APL Ab, to test the hypothesis in humans that impaired capacity to limit complement activation predisposes to preeclampsia. We sequenced genes encoding three complement regulatory proteins—membrane cofactor protein (MCP), complement factor I (CFI), and complement factor H (CFH)—in 40 patients who had preeclampsia and found heterozygous mutations in seven (18%). Five of these patients had risk variants in MCP or CFI that were previously identified in atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disease characterized by endothelial damage. One had a novel mutation in MCP that impairs regulation of C4b. These findings constitute, to our knowledge, the first genetic defects associated with preeclampsia in SLE and/or APL Ab. We confirmed the association of hypomorphic variants of MCP and CFI in a cohort of non-autoimmune preeclampsia patients in which five of 59 were heterozygous for mutations.
The presence of risk variants in complement regulatory proteins in patients with SLE and/or APL Ab who develop preeclampsia, as well as in preeclampsia patients lacking autoimmune disease, links complement activation to disease pathogenesis and suggests new targets for treatment of this important public health problem.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Most pregnancies culminate in the birth of a healthy baby but, sadly, about a quarter of women lose their babies during pregnancy. A common pregnancy-related medical problem that threatens the life of both baby and mother is preeclampsia. Mild and severe preeclampsia affects up to 10% and 1%–2% of pregnancies, respectively. Preeclampsia occurs because of a problem with the function of the placenta, the organ that transfers nutrients and oxygen from mother to baby and removes waste products from the baby. Although preeclampsia begins early in pregnancy, it is diagnosed by the onset of high blood pressure (hypertension) and the appearance of protein in the urine (proteinuria) after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Other warning signs include headaches and swelling of the hands and face. The only cure for preeclampsia is delivery, and labor is usually induced early to prevent eclampsia (seizures), stroke, liver and kidney failure, and breathing and blood vessel problems developing in the mother. Although delivery before 37 weeks of pregnancy is not generally recommended, in cases of preeclampsia it may be too dangerous for both the baby and the mother to allow the pregnancy to continue. Unfortunately when severe preeclampsia occurs in the second trimester, babies weighing only 500 grams may be delivered and they may not survive.
Why Was This Study Done?
Because the exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown, it is difficult to develop treatments for the condition or to find ways to prevent it. Many experts think that immune system problems—in particular, perturbations in complement activation—may be involved in preeclampsia. The complement system is a set of blood proteins that attacks invading bacteria and viruses. The activation of complement proteins is usually tightly regulated (overactivation of the complement system causes tissue damage) and, because preeclampsia may run in families, one hypothesis is that mutations (genetic changes) in complement regulatory proteins might predispose women to preeclampsia. In this study, the researchers test this hypothesis by sequencing genes encoding complement regulatory proteins in pregnant women with the autoimmune diseases systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) and/or antiphospholipid antibodies (APL Ab) who developed preeclampsia. In autoimmune diseases, the immune system attacks healthy human cells instead of harmful invaders. Both SLE and APL Ab are characterized by complement-mediated tissue injury and are associated with an increased risk of preeclampsia and miscarriage.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Two hundred fifty women with SLE and/or APL Ab were enrolled into the PROMISSE study (a multi-center observational study to identify predictors of pregnancy outcome in women with SLE and/or APL Ab) when they were 12 weeks pregnant and followed through pregnancy. Thirty patients developed preeclampsia during the study and ten more had had preeclampsia during a previous pregnancy. The researchers sequenced the genes for complement regulatory proteins: membrane cofactor protein (MCP), factor I, and factor H in these 40 patients. Seven women (18%) had mutations in one copy of one of these genes (there are two copies of most genes in human cells). Five mutations were alterations in MCP or factor I that are gene variants that increase the risk of hemolytic uremic syndrome, a disease characterized by blood vessel damage. The sixth mutation was a new MCP mutation that impaired MCP's ability to regulate complement component C4b. The final mutation was a factor H mutation that did not have any obvious functional effect. No mutations in complement regulatory proteins were found in 34 matched participants in PROMISSE without preeclampsia but, among a group of non-autoimmune women who developed preeclampsia during pregnancy, 10% had mutations in MCP or factor I.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings identify MCP and factor I mutations as genetic defects associated with preeclampsia in pregnant women with SLE and/or APL Ab. Importantly, they also reveal an association between similar mutations and preeclampsia in women without any underlying autoimmune disease. Taken together with evidence from previous animal experiments, these findings suggest that dysregulation of complement activation is involved in the development of preeclampsia. Although further studies are needed to confirm and extend these findings, these results suggest that proteins involved in the regulation of complement activation could be new targets for the treatment of preeclampsia and raise the possibility that tests could be developed to identify women at risk of developing preeclampsia.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001013.
Tommy's, a UK charity that funds scientific research into the causes and prevention of miscarriage, premature birth, and stillbirth, has information on preeclampsia
The March of Dimes Foundation, a nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health, has information on preeclampsia
The UK National Health Services Choices website also has information about preeclampsia
Wikipedia has pages on the complement system, on autoimmune disease, and on preeclampsia (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
More information on the PROMISSE study is available