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Reduced hepatic metallothionein expression in first trimester fetuses in response to intrauterine smoking exposure: a consequence of low maternal zinc levels?

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  • Katrine Bilde
  • Rasmus H Olesen
  • Emil H Ernst
  • Linn S Mamsen
  • Mahboobeh Amoushahi
  • Karin Lykke-Hartmann
  • Erik Ernst
  • Agnete Larsen
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STUDY QUESTION: Does maternal smoking in early pregnancy affect metallothionein 1 and 2 (MT1 and MT2) mRNA and protein expression in first trimester placenta or embryonic/fetal liver?

SUMMARY ANSWER: In the first trimester, MT protein expression is seen only in liver, where smoking is associated with a significantly reduced expression.

WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: Zinc homeostasis is altered by smoking. Smoking induces MT in the blood of smokers properly as a result of the cadmium binding capacities of MT. In term placenta MT is present and smoking induces gene and protein expression (MT2 in particular), but the MT presence and response to smoking have never been examined in first trimester placenta or embryonic/fetal tissues.

STUDY DESIGN, SIZE, DURATION: Cross sectional study where the presence of MT mRNA and protein was examined at the time of the abortion. The material was collected with informed consent after surgical intervention and frozen immediately. For protein expression analysis, liver tissue originating from smoking exposed n = 10 and unexposed n = 12 pregnancies was used. For mRNA expression analyses, placental tissue originating from smokers n = 19 and non-smokers n = 23 and fetal liver tissue from smoking exposed n = 16 and smoking unexposed pregnancies n = 13, respectively, were used.

PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS, SETTING, METHODS: Tissues were obtained from women who voluntarily and legally chose to terminate their pregnancy between gestational week 6 and 12. Western blot was used to determine the protein expression of MT, and real-time PCR was used to quantify the mRNA expression of MT2A and eight MT1 genes alongside the expression of key placental zinc transporters: zinc transporter protein-1 (ZNT1), Zrt-, Irt-related protein-8 and -14 (ZIP8 and ZIP14).

MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: A significant reduction in the protein expression of MT1/2 in liver tissue (P = 0.023) was found by western blot using antibodies detecting both MT forms. Overall, a similar tendency was observed on the mRNA level although not statistically significant. Protein expression was not present in placenta, but the mRNA regulation suggested a down regulation of MT as well. A suggested mechanism based on the known role of MT in zinc homeostasis could be that the findings reflect reduced levels of easily accessible zinc in the blood of pregnant smokers and hence a reduced MT response in smoking exposed fetal/embryonic tissues.

LIMITATIONS AND REASONS FOR CAUTION: Smoking was based on self-reports; however, our previous studies have shown high consistency regarding cotinine residues and smoking status. Passive smoking could interfere but was found mainly among smokers. The number of fetuses was limited, and other factors such as medication and alcohol might affect the findings. Information on alcohol was not consistently obtained, and we cannot exclude that it was more readily obtained from non-users. In the study, alcohol consumption was reported by a limited number (less than 1 out of 5) of women but with more smokers consuming alcohol. However, the alcohol consumption reported was typically limited to one or few times low doses. The interaction between alcohol and smoking is discussed in the paper. Notably we would have liked to measure zinc status to test our hypothesis, but maternal blood samples were not available.

WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: Zinc deficiency-in particular severe zinc deficiency-can affect pregnancy outcome and growth. Our findings indicate that zinc homeostasis is also affected in early pregnancy of smokers, and we know from pilot studies that even among women who want to keep their babies, the zinc status is low. Our findings support that zinc supplements should be considered in particular to women who smoke.

STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTEREST(S): We thank the Department of Biomedicine for providing laboratory facilities and laboratory technicians and the Lundbeck Foundation and Læge Sofus Carl Emil Friis og Hustru Olga Doris Friis Legat for financial support. The authors have no competing interests to declare.


Original languageEnglish
JournalHuman reproduction (Oxford, England)
Issue number11
Pages (from-to)2129-2143
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2019

ID: 59043398