Aims/hypothesis: The human placenta is a complex organ situated at the interface between mother and foetus that separates maternal from foetal blood. The placental surfaces exposed to the two bloodstreams are different, i.e. trophoblasts and endothelial cells are in contact with the maternal and foetal circulation, respectively. Both cell types produce high insulin receptor levels. The aim of the present study was to test the hypothesis that spatio-temporal changes in insulin receptor expression in trophoblasts from first trimester to the endothelium at term shift the control of insulin-dependent processes from mother to foetus.
Methods: Global microarray analysis of primary trophoblasts from first trimester and term human placentas and endothelial cells from term human placentas cultured under hyperinsulinaemic and control conditions identified different sets of regulated genes in trophoblasts and endothelial cells.
Results: Insulin effects on placental gene expression underwent developmental changes from trophoblasts in the first trimester to endothelial cells at term that were paralleled by changes in levels of activated insulin receptors. The changes in gene regulation were both quantitative (i.e. magnitude of effect) and qualitative (i.e. specific genes affected and direction of regulation).
Conclusions/interpretation: This spatio-temporal shift in insulin sensitivity throughout pregnancy allows maternal and foetal insulin to regulate different processes within the placenta at different gestational stages, facilitated by compartmentalisation of the insulin response. Thus, by altering the levels and function of insulin receptors in space and time, control of insulin-dependent processes in the human placenta will change from mother to foetus throughout gestation. This will be of particular interest in conditions associated with altered maternal or foetal insulin levels, i.e. diabetes mellitus or intrauterine growth restriction.