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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Oct 1990; 87(20): 7902–7906.

Placental transfer of essential fatty acids in humans: venous-arterial difference for docosahexaenoic acid in fetal umbilical erythrocytes.


Docosahexaenoic acid [22:6(n-3); 22:6(4,-7,10,13,16,19) (DHA)] is required in quantity by the developing nervous system of the fetus. This need could be met through synthesis of DHA from linolenic acid in the fetus or through placental transfer of DHA directly. To study the placental transfer of n-3 fatty acids, we obtained umbilical and maternal blood samples from 26 healthy women and infants at parturition and measured the fatty acid composition and content of both plasma and erythrocytes. A striking finding was a considerable venous-arterial difference for DHA in the umbilical erythrocytes as a proportion of total fatty acids and in absolute concentration. This difference of 2.2 micrograms per billion erythrocytes was 6 times larger than the difference in fetal plasma, when the plasma and erythrocyte concentrations were normalized to whole blood. Most other erythrocyte fatty acids showed a similar trend. In umbilical plasma, significant venous-arterial differences were found for 16:0, 16:1, 18:2, and total saturated fatty acids. There was a similar trend for most other plasma fatty acids. Compared with maternal blood, fetal plasma and erythrocytes had higher levels of 20:4 and DHA and lower levels of 18:2 and 18:3(n - 3) fatty acids as a proportion of total fatty acids. These results suggest that erythrocytes play a major role in the necessary transport of the essential fatty acid DHA into the fetus.

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