The mammalian placenta is the organ through which respiratory gases, nutrients, and wastes are exchanged between the maternal and fetal systems. Thus, transplacental exchange provides for all the metabolic demands of fetal growth and development. The rate of transplacental exchange depends primarily on the rates of uterine (maternal placental) and umbilical (fetal placental) blood flows. In fact, increased uterine vascular resistance and reduced uterine blood flow can be used as predictors of high risk pregnancies and are associated with fetal growth retardation. The rates of placental blood flow, in turn, are dependent on placental vascularization, and placental angiogenesis is therefore critical for the successful development of viable, healthy offspring. Recent studies, including gene knockouts in mice, indicate that the vascular endothelial growth factors represent a major class of placental angiogenic factors. Other angiogenic factors, such as the fibroblast growth factors or perhaps the angiopoietins, also may play important roles in placental vascularization. In addition, recent observations suggest that these angiogenic factors interact with the local vasodilator nitric oxide to coordinate placental angiogenesis and blood flow. In the future, regulators of angiogenesis that are currently being developed may provide novel and powerful methods to ensure positive outcomes for most pregnancies.
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