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J Lab Clin Med. 1995 Aug;126(2):184-203.

Maternal-to-fetal transfer of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate by the perfused human placental cotyledon: evidence for a concentrative role by placental folate receptors in fetal folate delivery.

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Department of Medicine, University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio 78284-7878, USA.


Folates play a vital role in cellular processes that are essential for fetal growth and viability. Thus the human placenta, which contains high-affinity membrane-associated placental folate receptors (PFRs), maintains a concentrative maternal-to-fetal flux of the vitamin under conditions of minimal dependence on variations of maternal dietary intake. To define transplacental folate transport and the role of PFRs in this mechanism, we utilized the isolated perfused human placental cotyledon. In closed system perfusions with 10 nmol/L 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, placental binding was rapid and extensive (47%), with a gradual maternal-to-fetal transfer of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. Although hydrophilic PFRs were released into the fetal perfusate, PFR-bound folates constituted only a fraction of net transplacental folate transport. Transfer was bidirectional, not saturable, not inhibited by anion channel blockers, and dependent on perfusate levels. Placental binding far exceeded transfer, and pulsing the maternal circuit with tritiated 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, followed by washout of unbound radiolabel and rechallenge with unlabeled 5-methyltetrahydrofolate or folate, led to release of bound tritiated 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, illustrating reversible binding. Perfusion with the N-hydroxysuccinimide ester of folic acid eliminated essentially all 5-methyltetrahydrofolate binding to PFRs, while increasing net maternal-to-fetal transfer of the vitamin. Finally, because it has been suggested that impaired placental transport of folate may be linked to the fetotoxic effects of ethanol, the effect of this compound on the above processes was examined. An acute 6-hour exposure to ethanol (2.5 to 3.1 mg/ml) had no effect (p > 0.05) on net maternal-to-fetal transfer of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate. These studies suggest that net maternal-to-fetal transfer is a process consisting of two steps. First is the concentrative component in which circulating 5-methyltetrahydrofolate is bound to (captured by) PFRs on the maternally facing chorionic surface. Although kinetics favor binding, there is a dynamic state wherein a gradual release of 5-methyltetrahydrofolate from this pool can add to incoming circulating folates to generate an intervillous blood level approximately 3 times that in the maternal blood. In the second step, folates are passively transferred to the fetal circulation along a downhill concentration gradient. This unique mechanism for transplacental folate transport may be applicable to other small relative molecular mass ligand nutrients that bind to high-affinity placental receptors.

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