Hypoxia and oxidative stress reduce placental efficiency and impair the balance between autophagy and cell death mechanisms in trophoblasts


Introduction: Hypoxia and oxidative stress can activate autophagy, a lysosomal degradation pathway that maintains cellular homeostasis. Impairments in autophagy mechanisms have been observed in placentas from obstetric complications associated with placental hypoxia and oxidative stress, such as preeclampsia and intrauterine growth restriction. Purpose: The objective of this study was to investigate the effects of hypoxia and oxidative stress on placental autophagy. We hypothesized that exposure to oxidative stress and hypoxia would alter the balance between cytotoxic and cytoprotective mechanisms in human trophoblast cells and rat placentas and would adversely affect placental efficiency. Methods: We used an in vitro model incorporating human trophoblast cells (BeWo cells) exposed to an oxidative stressor, antimycin A (10, 100, 320 μM) or vehicle for 4 hours. Trophoblast cell death and autophagy mechanisms were assessed via flow cytometry and western blotting. Additionally, we used a rodent model of gestational sleep apnea, a pregnancy complication associated with placental hypoxia. Long Evans timed-pregnant dams were exposed to chronic intermittent hypoxia (CIH; n=6-8) or normoxia (NX; n=8-9) during their sleep cycle from gestational day (GD) 15 to 20 (late pregnancy, term=21-23 days). Results: In trophoblast cells (n=5-9 independent experiments), antimycin A increased necrosis and LC3 A/B II/I ratio (autophagy marker) at 100 μM compared to vehicle (p<0.015). Necrosis remained elevated at 320 μM, while BAX (pro-apoptotic marker) and p62 (autophagosomal flux marker) were reduced compared to vehicle (p<0.0001). LC3 A/B II/I ratio returned to vehicle levels at 320 μM (p>0.05 vs. vehicle). Placental weights from CIH exposed dams were greater (NX: 0.51±0.02 g vs. CIH: 0.60±0.03 g, p=0.015) and fetal to placental weight ratios (marker of placental efficiency) were reduced compared to control pregnancies (NX: 5.25±0.13 vs. CIH: 4.43±0.14, p=0.0006) on GD20. Gestational CIH did not affect (p>0.05) fetal weights (NX: 2.76±0.06 g vs. CIH: 2.61±0.06 g), crown to rump length (NX: 3.32±0.03 cm vs. CIH :3.18±0.12 cm), abdominal girth (NX: 3.22±0.06 cm vs. CIH: 3.32±0.12 cm), or litter size (NX: 11.9±0.90 vs. CIH: 10.5±0.82). Conclusion: Oxidative stress alters the balance between cytotoxic and cytoprotective mechanisms in trophoblast cells, promoting cell necrosis. Although assessment of autophagy machinery and cell death in placentas from hypoxic pregnancies is ongoing, our results indicate that maternal CIH during pregnancy adversely affects placental efficiency.