Impaired fetal thymic growth precedes clinical preeclampsia: A case-control study

David P. Eviston*, Ann E. Quinton, Ron J. Benzie, Michael J. Peek, Andrew Martin, Ralph K. Nanan

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


In preeclampsia the maternal adaptive immune system undergoes specific changes, which are different from the physiological processes associated with healthy pregnancy. Whether preeclampsia also affects the fetal immune system is difficult to investigate, due to limited access to the fetus. We hypothesized that if preeclampsia affects the fetal adaptive immune system this might be associated with early changes in thymic growth. In this case-control study, 53 preeclamptic and 120 healthy control pregnancies were matched for maternal age, gestational age and smoking. Fetal thymus diameter was measured as the greatest width perpendicular to a line connecting sternum and spine based on ultrasound images taken at 17-21 weeks gestation. Independent of fetal and maternal anthropometric measures, thymuses were found to be smaller in preeclamptic pregnancies than healthy controls (16.2. mm versus 18.3. mm, respectively, mean difference = 2.1. mm, 95% CI: 0.8-3.3, p< 0.001), and the odds of developing preeclampsia was estimated to be 0.72 (95% CI: 0.60-0.86, p< 0.001) lower for each 1. mm increase in thymus diameter. There was no correlation between the onset of preeclampsia and fetal thymus size. This is the first study to suggest that fetal thymus growth is reduced before the clinical onset of preeclampsia and precedes any described fetal anomalies or maternal immunological changes associated with preeclampsia. We propose that the fetal adaptive immune system is either passively affected by maternal processes preceding clinical preeclampsia or is actively involved in initiating preeclampsia in later pregnancy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-189
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Reproductive Immunology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2012
Externally publishedYes


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