Apoptosis (programmed cell death) in the human placenta is likely to play a major role in determining the structure and function of that organ. Fetal growth restriction (FGR) has been shown to be associated with increased levels of placental apoptosis. Altered regulation of apoptosis may play an important pathophysiological role in FGR. As reduced placental perfusion and reduced oxygenation are features of FGR, one aim of this study was to determine the effects of hypoxia on apoptotic activity, as assessed by DNA laddering, of placental tissue in vitro. In addition, levels of placental apoptosis may be affected by pharmacological agents routinely used in obstetric patient management. Thus an additional aim of this study was to determine the effects of several relevant pharmacological agents on the levels of DNA laddering during in vitro incubation of human placentae under hypoxic conditions. Incubation of normal placental explant tissue at 37 °C for 1–2 h under hypoxic conditions significantly increased placental DNA laddering compared with that in non-incubated tissue, whereas levels of DNA laddering during incubation for up to 2 h under normoxic conditions were not significantly higher than those in non-incubated tissue. The DNA laddering activity of placental explants after 2 h of incubation under hypoxic conditions was significantly increased with increased concentrations of magnesium, but remained unchanged by the inclusion of pethidine, aspirin, nifedipine, dexamethasone, heparin or indomethacin in the incubation mixture. These results suggest that hypoxia may stimulate apoptotic activity in cultured human placental tissues, and that hypoxia-stimulated placental apoptosis may be further increased by increasing the extracellular magnesium concentration.

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