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Ying Wang, Baosheng Chen, Mark S Longtine and D Michael Nelson

Punicalagin is a prominent polyphenol in pomegranate juice that protects cultured syncytiotrophoblasts from stress-induced apoptosis. Here, we test the hypothesis that punicalagin has this effect by inhibiting the mTOR kinase pathway to enhance autophagic turnover and limit apoptosis in cultured primary human syncytiotrophoblasts. In syncytiotrophoblasts, starvation, rapamycin, or punicalagin all decreased the expression of phosphorylated ribosomal protein S6, a downstream target of the mTOR kinase, and of the autophagy markers, LC3-II and p62. In contrast, in the presence of bafilomycin, an inhibitor of late stages of autophagy and degradation in the autophagolysosome, syncytiotrophoblasts exposed to starvation, rapamycin, or punicalagin all showed increased levels of LC3-II and p62. The number of LC3-II punctae also increased in punicalagin-treated syncytiotrophoblasts exposed to chloroquine, another inhibitor of autophagic degradation, and punicalagin increased the number of lysosomes. The apoptosis-reducing effect of punicalagin was attenuated by inhibition of autophagy using bafilomycin or knockdown of the autophagy related gene, ATG16L1. Collectively, these data support the hypothesis that punicalagin modulates the crosstalk between autophagy and apoptosis to promote survival in cultured syncytiotrophoblasts.

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Mark S Longtine, Silvija Cvitic, Bryanne N Colvin, Baosheng Chen, Gernot Desoye and D Michael Nelson

We assessed the response of primary cultures of placental villous mononucleated trophoblasts and multinucleated syncytiotrophoblast to calcitriol, the most biologically active form of vitamin D. Whole-genome microarray data showed that calcitriol modulates the expression of many genes in trophoblasts within 6 hours of exposure and RT-qPCR revealed similar responses in cytotrophoblasts, syncytiotrophoblasts and villous explants. Both cytotrophoblasts and syncytiotrophoblasts expressed genes for the vitamin D receptor, for LRP2 and CUBN that mediate internalization of calcidiol, for CYP27B1 that encodes the enzyme that converts calcidiol into active calcitriol, and for CYP24A1 that encodes the enzyme that modifies calcitriol and calcidiol to inactive calcitetrol. Notably, we found an inverse effect of calcitriol on expression of CD14 and CD180/RP105, proteins that differentially regulate toll-like receptor 4-mediated immune responses. Supported by gene ontology analysis, we tested the hypothesis that CD14 and CD180 modulate the inflammatory response of syncytiotrophoblast to bacterial lipopolysaccharide (LPS). These cells showed a robust response to a wide range of LPS concentrations, with induction of active NF-κB and increased secretion of IL-6 and IL-8. SiRNA-mediated knockdown of CD14 reduced the secretion of IL-6 and IL-8 in response to LPS. Collectively, our data showed that calcitriol has a rapid and widespread effect on villous trophoblast gene expression in general, and a specific effect on the innate immune response by syncytiotrophoblast.

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Bryanne N Colvin, Mark S Longtine, Baosheng Chen, Maria Laura Costa and D Michael Nelson

Pre-pregnancy obesity is increasingly common and predisposes pregnant women and offspring to gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, fetal growth abnormalities and stillbirth. Obese women exhibit elevated levels of the two most common dietary fatty acids, palmitate and oleate, and the maternal blood containing these nutrients bathes the surface of trophoblasts of placental villi in vivo. We test the hypothesis that the composition and concentration of free fatty acids modulate viability and function of primary human villous trophoblasts in culture. We found that palmitate increases syncytiotrophoblast death, specifically by caspase-mediated apoptosis, whereas oleate does not cause enhanced cell death. Importantly, exposure to both fatty acids in equimolar amounts yielded no increase in death or apoptosis, suggesting that oleate can protect syncytiotrophoblasts from palmitate-induced death. We further found that palmitate, but not oleate or oleate with palmitate, increases endoplasmic reticulum (ER) stress, signaling through the unfolded protein response, and yielding CHOP-mediated induction of apoptosis. Finally, we show that oleate or oleate plus palmitate both lead to increased lipid droplets in syncytiotrophoblasts, whereas palmitate does not. The data show palmitate is toxic to human syncytiotrophoblasts, through the induction of ER stress and apoptosis mediated by CHOP, whereas oleate is not toxic, abrogates palmitate toxicity and induces fat accumulation. We speculate that our in vitro results offer pathways by which the metabolic milieu of the obese pregnant woman can yield villous trophoblast dysfunction and sub-optimal placental function.

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Mark S Longtine, Baosheng Chen, Anthony O Odibo, Yan Zhong and D Michael Nelson

Human placental villi are surfaced by a multinucleated and terminally differentiated epithelium, the syncytiotrophoblast, with a subjacent layer of mononucleated cytotrophoblasts that can divide and fuse to replenish the syncytiotrophoblast. The objectives of this study were i) to develop an approach to definitively identify and distinguish cytotrophoblasts from the syncytiotrophoblast, ii) to unambiguously determine the relative susceptibility of villous cytotrophoblasts and syncytiotrophoblast to constitutive and stress-induced apoptosis mediated by caspases, and iii) to understand the progression of apoptosis in villous trophoblasts. Confocal microscopy with co-staining for E-cadherin and DNA allowed us to clearly distinguish the syncytiotrophoblast from cytotrophoblasts and identified that many cytotrophoblasts are deeply interdigitated into the syncytiotrophoblast. Staining for specific markers of caspase-mediated apoptosis indicate that apoptosis occurs readily in cytotrophoblasts but is remarkably inhibited in the syncytiotrophoblast. To determine if an apoptotic cell or cell fragment was from a cytotrophoblast or syncytiotrophoblast, we found co-staining with E-cadherin along with a marker for apoptosis was essential: in the absence of E-cadherin staining, apoptotic cytotrophoblasts would easily be mistaken as representing localized regions of apoptosis in the syncytiotrophoblast. Regions with perivillous fibrin-containing fibrinoid contain the remnants of trophoblast apoptosis, and we propose this apoptosis occurs only after physical isolation of a region of the syncytium from the main body of the syncytium. We propose models for the progression of apoptosis in villous cytotrophoblasts and for why caspase-mediated apoptosis does not occur within the syncytium of placental villi.