Normal pregnancy is characterized by systemic activation of the complement system

J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2005 Apr;17(4):239-45. doi: 10.1080/14767050500072722.


Background: The complement system, a major component of innate immunity, has recently been implicated in the mechanisms of fetal loss and placental inflammation in the anti-phospholipid antibody syndrome. Inhibition of complement has been proposed as an absolute requirement for normal pregnancy. Yet, pregnancy is characterized by a generalized activation of the innate immune system. This study was conducted to determine whether or not normal pregnancy is associated with complement activation in the maternal circulation.

Methods: Anaphylatoxins (C3a, C4a and C5a) were determined in the plasma of normal pregnant (20-42 wks; n=134) and non-pregnant women (n=40). These complement split products (C3a, C4a and C5a) were measured using specific immunoassays. Non-parametric statistics were used for analysis.

Results: 1) The median plasma concentrations of C3a, C4a and C5a were significantly higher in normal pregnant women than in non-pregnant women (all p<0.001); 2) the concentration of C3a, C4a and C5a did not change with gestational age (p>0.05); and 3) the median plasma concentration of C3a had a positive correlation with the plasma C4a and C5a concentrations (r=0.36, p<0.001 and r=0.35, p<0.001, respectively).

Conclusion: 1) Normal human pregnancy is associated with evidence of complement activation, as determined by higher concentrations of the anaphylatoxins C3a, C4a and C5a in the maternal circulation; and 2) we propose that physiologic activation of the complement system during pregnancy is a compensatory mechanism aimed at protecting the host against infection.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anaphylatoxins / analysis
  • Anaphylatoxins / immunology*
  • Complement System Proteins / immunology*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate / immunology
  • Pregnancy / blood
  • Pregnancy / immunology*


  • Anaphylatoxins
  • Complement System Proteins