Background: Pregnancy induces drastic biological changes systemically, and has a beneficial effect on some autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). However, specific systemic changes that occur as a result of pregnancy have not been thoroughly examined in healthy women or women with RA. The goal of this study was to identify genes with expression patterns associated with pregnancy, compared to pre-pregnancy as baseline and determine whether those associations are modified by presence of RA.
Results: In our RNA sequencing (RNA-seq) dataset from 5 healthy women and 20 women with RA, normalized expression levels of 4,710 genes were significantly associated with pregnancy status (pre-pregnancy, first, second and third trimesters) over time, irrespective of presence of RA (False Discovery Rate (FDR)-adjusted p value<0.05). These genes were enriched in pathways spanning multiple systems, as would be expected during pregnancy. A subset of these genes (n = 256) showed greater than two-fold change in expression during pregnancy compared to baseline levels, with distinct temporal trends through pregnancy. Another 98 genes involved in various biological processes including immune regulation exhibited expression patterns that were differentially associated with pregnancy in the presence or absence of RA.
Conclusions: Our findings support the hypothesis that the maternal immune system plays an active role during pregnancy, and also provide insight into other systemic changes that occur in the maternal transcriptome during pregnancy compared to the pre-pregnancy state. Only a small proportion of genes modulated by pregnancy were influenced by presence of RA in our data.