Intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP) is a pregnancy specific liver disease associated with significant risk of fetal complications. It is hypothesised that the risk of adverse fetal outcomes relates to the toxic effects of bile acids, the levels of which are increased in both maternal and fetal serum. Human and rodent studies have shown that transplacental transfer of bile acids is impaired in ICP. Furthermore, the morphology of placentas from the rodent model of ICP is markedly abnormal, and is associated with increased expression of apoptotic markers and oxidative stress. Using placental tissue from ICP cases and normal pregnancies and cultured placental explant fragments we investigated the histological and molecular effects of cholestasis. We also examined the influence of ursodeoxycholic acid (UDCA) administration on these parameters. Here we report that ICP is associated with several morphological abnormalities of the placenta, including an increase in the number of syncytial knots, and that these can be reproduced in an in vitro (explant) model exposed to the bile acids taurocholic acid and taurochenodoexycholic acid. Furthermore, we demonstrate that ursodeoxycholic acid, a drug commonly used in the management of ICP, has a protective effect on placental tissue both in vivo and in vitro.
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