Pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy-specific multi-organ syndrome characterized by widespread endothelial damage, is a new risk factor for cardiovascular disease. No therapies exist to prevent or treat this condition, even to achieve a modest improvement in pregnancy length or birth weight. Co-administration of soluble VEGFR-1 [VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) receptor-1; more commonly known as sFlt-1 (soluble Fms-like tyrosine kinase-1)] and sEng (soluble endoglin) to pregnant rats elicits severe pre-eclampsia-like symptoms. These two anti-angiogenic factors are increased dramatically prior to the clinical onset of pre-eclampsia and are quite possibly the ‘final common pathway’ responsible for the accompanying signs of hypertension and proteinuria as they can be reversed by VEGF administration in animal models. HO-1 (haem oxygenase-1), an anti-inflammatory enzyme, and its metabolite, CO (carbon monoxide), exert protective effects in several organs against oxidative stimuli. In a landmark publication, we showed that the HO-1 pathway inhibits sFlt-1 and sEng in cultured cells and human placental tissue explants. Both CO and NO (nitric oxide) promote vascular homoeostasis and vasodilatation, and activation of VEGFR-1 or VEGFR-2 induced eNOS (endothelial nitric oxide synthase) phosphorylation, NO release and HO-1 expression. Our studies established the HO-1/CO pathway as a negative regulator of cytokine-induced sFlt-1 and sEng release and eNOS as a positive regulator of VEGF-mediated vascular morphogenesis. These findings provide compelling evidence for a protective role of HO-1 in pregnancy and identify it as a target for the treatment of pre-eclampsia. Any agent that is known to up-regulate HO-1, such as statins, may have potential as a therapy. Any intervention achieving even a modest prolongation of pregnancy or amelioration of the condition could have a significant beneficial health impact worldwide.

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