Preeclampsia affects 3–5% of pregnancies and can have a significant impact on health for both mother and fetus. Risk factors include maternal co-morbidities such as obesity and chronic hypertension, paternal factors, and genetic factors. New hypertension and proteinuria during the second half of pregnancy are key diagnostic criteria, but the clinical features and associated prognostic implications are somewhat heterogeneous and may reflect different mechanisms of disease. Renal dysfunction and proteinuria correspond to the pathologic finding of glomerular endotheliosis, and generally resolve after cure of preeclampsia through fetal and placenta delivery. The molecular mechanisms behind this disease are being discovered and refined. The initial etiologic agents are currently unknown. Pathologic studies show abnormal development of an ischemic placenta with a high-resistance vasculature, which cannot deliver an adequate blood supply to the fetoplacental unit. Endothelial dysfunction plays a central role in the pathogenesis of the maternal syndrome. Dysfunctional endothelial cells produce altered quantities of vasoactive mediators, which lead to a tip in the balance towards vasoconstriction. An imbalance in circulating angiogenic factors is emerging as a prominent mechanism that mediates the endothelial dysfunction and the clinical signs and symptoms of preeclampsia. Soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase 1 (sFlt1), an endogenous anti-angiogenic factor that is a potent vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) antagonist, is highly elevated in preeclampsia. VEGF is not only important in angiogenesis, but also in maintaining endothelial health including the formation of endothelial fenestrae (a hallmark of the glomerular vascular endothelium). sFlt1 overexpression in animals induces glomerular endotheliosis with the loss of endothelial fenestrae that resembles the renal histological lesions of preeclampsia. More severe forms of preeclampsia, including the HELLP syndrome, may be explained by a concomitant elevation in both sFlt1 and soluble endoglin, another anti-angiogenic factor. Unraveling of the molecular mechanisms behind preeclampsia may help to expand our armamentarium to treat patients in a more directed fashion, as current management consists of supportive care and expedited delivery. Finally, long-term outcomes of women with preeclampsia include a significantly increased risk for hypertension and cardiovascular disease, including mortality, which may warrant more aggressive screening and treatment in this population.
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