Teratogen update: methotrexate

Birth Defects Res A Clin Mol Teratol. 2012 Apr;94(4):187-207. doi: 10.1002/bdra.23003. Epub 2012 Mar 20.


Methotrexate and aminopterin are folic acid antagonists that inhibit dihydrofolate reductase, resulting in a block in the synthesis of thymidine and inhibition of DNA synthesis. Methotrexate has been used for the treatment of malignancy, rheumatic disorders, and psoriasis and termination of intrauterine pregnancy. Recently, methotrexate has become a standard treatment for ectopic pregnancy. The misdiagnosis of an intrauterine pregnancy as an ectopic pregnancy can result in exposure of a continuing pregnancy to dose levels of methotrexate of 50 mg/m(2) (maternal body surface area). Experimental animal studies have associated methotrexate therapy with embryo death in mice, rats, rabbits, and monkeys. Structural malformations have been most consistently produced in rabbits at a maternal dose level of 19.2 mg/kg. Abnormalities in rabbits include hydrocephalus, microphthalmia, cleft lip and palate, micrognathia, dysplastic sacral and caudal vertebrate, phocomelia, hemimelia, syndactyly, and ectrodactyly. Based on human case reports of methotrexate exposure during pregnancy, a methotrexate embryopathy has been described that includes growth deficiency, microcephaly, hypoplasia of skull bones, wide fontanels, coronal or lambdoidal craniosynostosis, upswept frontal scalp hair, broad nasal bridge, shallow supraorbital ridges, prominent eyes, low-set ears, maxillary hypoplasia, epicanthal folds, short limbs, talipes, hypodactyly, and syndactyly. This syndrome may be associated with exposures between 6 and 8 weeks after conception and dose levels of 10 mg/week or greater. More recent case reports of methotrexate exposure for the misdiagnosis of ectopic pregnancy involve treatment before 6 weeks after conception and have raised the suggestion of a distinct syndrome due to such early exposures. Tetralogy of Fallot and perhaps other neural crest cell-related abnormalities may be features of this early syndrome. A disproportionality analysis of methotrexate and aminopterin case reports and series provides support for pulmonary atresia, craniosynostosis, and limb deficiencies as reported more often than expected in methotrexate-exposed children. Denominator-based data will be welcome to better define elements of a methotrexate embryopathy and possibly to distinguish an early exposure syndrome from anomalies traditionally associated with methotrexate exposure.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Drug-Induced / etiology*
  • Abnormalities, Drug-Induced / pathology
  • Abnormalities, Multiple / chemically induced*
  • Abnormalities, Multiple / pathology
  • Aminopterin / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Fetal Diseases / etiology
  • Folic Acid Antagonists / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Methotrexate / toxicity*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications / drug therapy
  • Pregnancy, Ectopic / drug therapy
  • Rabbits
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Teratogens / toxicity*
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase / drug effects


  • Folic Acid Antagonists
  • Teratogens
  • Tetrahydrofolate Dehydrogenase
  • Aminopterin
  • Methotrexate