Background: Leptin, an adipose tissue-derived signalling factor encoded by the obese gene has been shown to be present as a 16-kDa protein in the blood of mice and humans. Resistance to leptin occurs in human obesity. Leptin has also been shown to associate with plasma insulin concentrations and there is currently considerable debate about the potential link between insulin resistance and resistance to leptin. In non-pregnant individuals, circulating leptin concentrations associate strongly with both total body fat mass and body mass index (BMI). In normal human pregnancy, the maternal fat stores increase to a peak in the late second trimester, before declining towards term as fat stores are mobilized to support the rapidly growing fetus. Insulin resistance increases during late pregnancy and is believed to be further enhanced in pregnancies complicated by pre-eclampsia. The aim of this study was to examine if leptin levels were altered in pregnancy and, if so, whether the pattern of change in circulating leptin related to previously established changes in fasting insulin concentrations or fat mass.
Methods: We measured third trimester plasma leptin concentrations in 12 uncomplicated pregnant women, nine women with pre-eclampsia matched for age and booking BMI, and 18 non-pregnant women similarly matched. We also examined the longitudinal course of leptin concentrations occurring throughout gestation (from 10 weeks gestation and at five week intervals thereafter), in five normal pregnancies and two women with gestational-onset diabetes.
Results: Leptin concentrations were significantly higher in the normal pregnant women (37.1 microg/L, [15.4-117.0], geometric mean, [range]; p=0.049), and women with pre-eclampsia (45.3 microg/L, [21.3-98.4]; p=0.001), than in non-pregnant controls (17.85 microg/L, [1.3-36.5]), however, there was no significant difference between uncomplicated and pre-eclamptic pregnancies (p=0.22). On examination of the longitudinal course of leptin concentrations occurring throughout gestation, in all seven women plasma leptin concentrations initially increased relative to booking (10 weeks) concentrations, but did so by varying amounts (ranging between 30-233%). Significantly, however, in all seven women plasma leptin concentrations peaked at around 20-30 weeks of gestation before declining towards term.
Conclusion: On the basis of these observations, we postulate that plasma leptin levels increase significantly in human pregnancies and that the pattern of change in circulating leptin parallels the process of fat accumulation and mobilization.