A potential role for free fatty acids in the pathogenesis of preeclampsia

J Hypertens. 2009 Jun;27(6):1293-302. doi: 10.1097/hjh.0b013e328329fbfe.


Objective: Pregnant women with the vascular complication of preeclampsia show altered lipid metabolism characterized by elevated circulating triglycerides and nonesterified free fatty acids. We have compared the effect of maternal plasma from women with and without preeclampsia on cultured vascular endothelial cells and determined whether these plasma-induced changes were reproduced with free fatty acid solutions of palmitic, oleic and linoleic acid, representative of circulating levels reported in preeclampsia.

Methods: Lipid accumulation was quantified by oil-red O staining, apoptosis by terminal dUTP nick-end labelling (TUNEL) and the measurement of mitochondrial redox capacity, and membrane potential recorded using MTT reduction and JC-1 accumulation for human umbilical vein endothelial cells (HUVECs) exposed to plasma and free fatty acids.

Results: Lipid droplet accumulation was significantly increased in cultured HUVECs conditioned with maternal plasma from pregnancies with preeclampsia compared with normal uncomplicated controls. This increase was replicated following exposure to free fatty acids at the combined concentrations defined in preeclampsia. Plasma from these women also caused a significant decrease in mitochondrial dehydrogenase activity, a marked reduction in mitochondrial membrane potential and an increase in apoptosis compared with normal pregnancy. Again these effects were reproduced using free fatty acids in combination at the levels previously associated with preeclampsia.

Conclusion: These findings support the concept of a circulating pathogenic factor for preeclampsia and highlight the possibility that this factor is not a single compound but perhaps the combined elevation of the free fatty acids palmitic, oleic and linoleic acid in the maternal circulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Endothelial Cells / drug effects
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Endothelial Cells / pathology
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / blood*
  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Linoleic Acid / blood
  • Linoleic Acid / pharmacology
  • Lipid Metabolism / drug effects
  • Membrane Potential, Mitochondrial / drug effects
  • Oleic Acid / blood
  • Oleic Acid / pharmacology
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Palmitic Acid / blood
  • Palmitic Acid / pharmacology
  • Pre-Eclampsia / blood*
  • Pre-Eclampsia / etiology*
  • Pregnancy


  • Fatty Acids, Nonesterified
  • Oleic Acid
  • Palmitic Acid
  • Linoleic Acid