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Mengdie Li, Xiandong Peng, Jinfeng Qian, Fengrun Sun, Chunqin Chen, Songcun Wang, Jianping Zhang, and Meirong Du

To obtain a successful pregnancy, trophoblasts must provide a physical barrier, suppress maternal reactivity, produce immunosuppressive hormones locally, and enhance the production of blocking factors that are able to bind to several antigenic sites. Inadequate placental perfusion has been closely associated with several pregnancy-associated diseases. Galectin-9 (Gal-9) has a wide variety of regulatory functions in innate and adaptive immunity during infection, tumor growth, and organ transplantation. We utilized immortalized human first-trimester extravillous trophoblast cells (HTR8/SVneo) for our functional study and examined the effects of Gal-9 on apoptosis, cytokine production and angiogenesis of HTR8/SVneo cells. Gal-9 inhibited the apoptosis and IFN-γ and IL-17A production, promoted IL-4 production, and coordinated the crosstalk between HTR8/SVneo cells and human umbilical vein endothelial cells via its interaction with Tim-3. Blockade of JNK signaling inhibited Gal-9 activities in HTR8/SVneo cells. In addition, we detected a correlation between low levels of Gal-9 and spontaneous abortion. So Gal-9 could inhibit the apoptosis and proinflammatory cytokine expression, and promote the angiogenesis and IL-4 production in HTR8/SVneo cells via Tim-3 in a JNK dependent manner to help the maintenance of normal pregnancy. These findings possibly identify Gal-9 as a key regulator of trophoblast cells and suggest its potential as a biomarker and target for the treatment of recurrent pregnancy loss.

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Ned J Place, Alexandra M Prado, Mariela Faykoo-Martinez, Miguel Angel Brieño-Enriquez, David F Albertini, and Melissa M Holmes

The naked mole-rat (NMR, Heterocephalus glaber) is renowned for its eusociality and exceptionally long lifespan (> 30 y) relative to its small body size (35–40 g). A NMR phenomenon that has received far less attention is that females show no decline in fertility or fecundity into their third decade of life. The age of onset of reproductive decline in many mammalian species is closely associated with the number of germ cells remaining at the age of sexual maturity. We quantified ovarian reserve size in NMRs at the youngest age (6 months) when subordinate females can begin to ovulate after removal from the queen’s suppression. We then compared the NMR ovarian reserve size to values for 19 other mammalian species that were previously reported. The NMR ovarian reserve at 6 months of age is exceptionally large at 108,588 ± 69,890 primordial follicles, which is more than 10-fold larger than in mammals of a comparable size. We also observed germ cell nests in ovaries from 6-month-old NMRs, which is highly unusual since breakdown of germ cell nests and the formation of primordial follicles is generally complete by early postnatal life in other mammals. Additionally, we found germ cell nests in young adult NMRs between 1.25 and 3.75 years of age, in both reproductively activated and suppressed females. The unusually large NMR ovarian reserve provides one mechanism to account for this species’ protracted fertility. Whether germ cell nests in adult ovaries contribute to the NMR’s long reproductive lifespan remains to be determined.

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Jacqueline A Maybin

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Susan Wray, Mona Alruwaili, and Clodagh Prendergast

Intermittent myometrial hypoxia is a normal feature of labour, as the powerful contractions compress blood vessels. In this review, we focus on the relation between hypoxia, myometrial metabolism, and contractility. We dissect how hypoxia can feedback and limit an ongoing contraction and help prevent foetal distress. The mechanisms involve acidification from lactate, decreased excitability, and a fall of intracellular calcium concentration. As this cycle of contraction and relaxation repeats in labour, the hypoxia also engenders mechanisms that increase force; hypoxia-induced force increase, HIFI. We also discuss the role of the myometrial blood vessels in dysfunctional labour, which is associated with lactic acidosis. In synthesising these studies, we have attempted to unify findings by considering the importance of experimental protocols and finding direct mechanistic evidence from human myometrium or in vivo studies. We have made suggestions for future studies to fill the holes in our understanding and speed up the translation of our knowledge to improve births for mothers and babies everywhere.

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Megan Lim, Jeremy G Thompson, and Kylie R Dunning

The ovarian follicle provides the oocyte with the ideal environment for growth and development in preparation for ovulation and fertilisation. The follicle undergoes many structural changes as it grows, including changes in vasculature, cell proliferation and differentiation and the formation of a fluid-filled antrum. These changes collectively create a low oxygen environment within the follicle. Thus, the oocyte itself develops in a potentially hypoxic environment. The survival of hypoxic tissues is controlled by hypoxia-inducible factors (HIFs) that are activated in a low oxygen state. The understanding of HIF pathways is growing across all fields of biology, and its role in ovarian development is steadily gaining clarity. One of the genes upregulated by HIF is a vascular endothelial growth factor, the main inducer of angiogenesis which is required for follicle development and corpus formation. Ovulation is also intrinsically linked to HIF activity through the ovulatory luteinising hormone surge increasing HIF expression. The role for HIF in oocyte maturation is less understood, as efforts to replicate the low oxygen environment of the in vivo follicle are not achievable by culturing in low oxygen alone. There is potential for other factors present in vivo, but lost in vitro, to be involved in oxygen regulation. One factor of interest is haemoglobin, the oxygen-binding protein, which brings the exciting possibility of sensitive oxygen regulation, consequently affecting HIF-regulated gene expression. A thorough understanding of oxygen regulation within the follicle would provide vital applications for the field of assisted reproductive technologies, in particular in vitro oocyte maturation.

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Franchesca D Houghton

Development of the preimplantation embryo is reliant on nutrients present in the milieu of the reproductive tract. While carbohydrates, amino acids, lipids, and micronutrients are often considered when discussing preimplantation embryo nutrition, environmental oxygen is frequently overlooked. Although oxygen is not classically considered a nutrient, it is an important component of the in vitro culture environment and a critical regulator of cellular physiology. Oxygen is required to sustain an oxidative metabolism but when oxygen becomes limited, cells mount a physiological response driven by a family of transcription factors termed ‘hypoxia inducible factors’ which promote expression of a multitude of oxygen sensitive genes. It is this hypoxic response that is responsible not only for the switch to a glycolytic metabolism but also for a plethora of other cellular responses. There has been much debate in recent years over which environmental oxygen tension is preferential for the culture of preimplantation embryos. The review will evaluate this question and highlights how research using human embryonic stem cells can inform our understanding of why culturing under physiological oxygen tensions may be beneficial for the development of embryos generated through clinical in vitro fertilisation.

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Graham J Burton, Tereza Cindrova-Davies, Hong wa Yung, and Eric Jauniaux

Development of the human placenta takes place in contrasting oxygen concentrations at different stages of gestation, from ~20 mmHg during the first trimester rising to ~60 mmHg at the start of the second trimester before gradually declining to ~40 mmHg at term. In view of these changes, the early placenta has been described as ‘hypoxic’. However, placental metabolism is heavily glycolytic, supported by the rich supply of glucose from the endometrial glands, and there is no evidence of energy compromise. On the contrary, the trophoblast is highly proliferative, with the physiological low-oxygen environment promoting maintenance of stemness in progenitor populations. These conditions favour the formation of the cytotrophoblastic shell that encapsulates the conceptus and interfaces with the endometrium. Extravillous trophoblast cells on the outer surface of the shell undergo an epithelial-mesenchymal transition and acquire invasive potential. Experimental evidence suggests that these changes may be mediated by the higher oxygen concentration present within the placental bed. Interpreting in vitro data is often difficult, however, due to the use of non-physiological oxygen concentrations and trophoblast-like cell lines or explant models. Trophoblast is more vulnerable to hyperoxia or fluctuating levels of oxygen than to hypoxia, and some degree of placental oxidative stress likely occurs in all pregnancies towards term. In complications of pregnancy, such as early-onset pre-eclampsia, malperfusion generates high levels of oxidative stress, causing release of factors that precipitate the maternal syndrome. Further experiments are required using genuine trophoblast progenitor cells and physiological concentrations to fully elucidate the pathways by which oxygen regulates placental development.

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Lorna G Moore

High altitude offers a natural laboratory for studying the effects of chronic hypoxia on reproductive health. Counter to early accounts, fertility (the number of livebirths) appears little affected although stillbirths are more common. Birth weights are lower due to fetal growth restriction, not shortened gestation. Multigenerational (Andean or Tibetan) compared with newcomer residents appear relatively protected from pregnancy loss as well as altitude-associated fetal growth restriction, perhaps due in part to preservation of the normal rise in uterine artery blood flow. Myometrial artery vasodilator response, a key determinant of uterine blood flow, is blunted in healthy Colorado high-altitude residents, similar to what occurs in intrauterine growth restriction or preeclampsia at low altitude. The high-altitude vessels are also more sensitive to the vasodilatory actions of AMP kinase (AMPK) activation. The gene region containing PRKAA1 (coding for AMPK’s alpha-1 catalytic subunit) has been acted upon by natural selection in Andeans and is related to preservation of normal blood flow and fetal growth at high altitude, suggesting one mechanism by which high-altitude adaptation may have been achieved. Preeclampsia is more common at high altitudes but unknown is whether multigenerational residents are protected relative to newcomers. Postnatal loss is diminished in Tibetans vs Han with equal access to health care, perhaps due in part to better maintained arterial O2 saturation during infancy. Finally, pregnancy and intrauterine development not only affect immediate survival but also susceptibility to the later-in-life cardiovascular disease, chronic mountain sickness.

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Rocío Martínez-Aguilar, Lucy E Kershaw, Jane J Reavey, Hilary O D Critchley, and Jacqueline A Maybin

The endometrium is a multicellular tissue that is exquisitely responsive to the ovarian hormones. The local mechanisms of endometrial regulation to ensure optimal function are less well characterised. Transient physiological hypoxia has been proposed as a critical regulator of endometrial function. Herein, we review the literature on hypoxia in the non-pregnant endometrium. We discuss the pros and cons of animal models, human laboratory studies and novel in vivo imaging for the study of endometrial hypoxia. These research tools provide mounting evidence of a transient hypoxic episode in the menstrual endometrium and suggest that endometrial hypoxia may be present at the time of implantation. This local hypoxia may modify the inflammatory environment, influence vascular remodelling and modulate endometrial proliferation to optimise endometrial function. Finally, we review current knowledge of the impact of this hypoxia on endometrial pathologies, with a focus on abnormal uterine bleeding. Throughout the manuscript areas for future research are highlighted with the aim of concentrating research efforts to maximise future benefits for women and society.

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Wan-Ning Li, Meng-Hsing Wu, and Shaw-Jenq Tsai

Endometriosis is a benign gynecological disease that affects about 10% of women of reproductive age. Patients with endometriosis suffer from long-term coexistence with dysmenorrhea, dyspareunia, and even infertility, which severely reduces quality of life. So far, surgical removal and hormonal medication are the major treatment options; however, high recurrence and severe adverse effects hamper the therapeutic efficacy. Hypoxia is an inevitable cellular stress in many diseases that regulates the expression of a significant subset of genes involved in pathophysiological processes. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that hypoxia plays critical role in controlling the disease phenotypes of endometriosis, such as increasing adhesion ability, causing dysregulation of estrogen biosynthesis, aberrant production of proinflammatory cytokines, increasing angiogenic ability, and suppression of immune functions. In this review, we summarize the findings of the most recent studies in exploring the underlying mechanisms of hypoxia involved in endometriosis. Potential therapeutic options for targeting HIF and downstream effectors will also be discussed.