Methods and Results—We conducted a longitudinal study of 42 pregnant women. Twenty-one women received prophylactic heparin anticoagulation, and 21 healthy pregnant women served as controls. Compared with gestational age-matched controls, heparin treatment was associated with increased circulating levels of soluble fms-like tyrosine kinase-1 (sFlt-1) in the third trimester (P<0.05), in the absence of preeclampsia, placental abruption, or fetal growth restriction. Heparin had no effect on circulating levels of vascular endothelial growth factor, placenta growth factor, or soluble endoglin as assessed by ELISA. In vitro, low-molecular weight and unfractionated heparins stimulated sFlt-1 release from placental villous explants, in a dose- and time-dependent manner. This effect was not due to placental apoptosis, necrosis, alteration in protein secretion, or increased transcription. Western blot analysis demonstrated that heparin induced shedding of the N-terminus of Flt-1 both in vivo and in vitro as indicated by a predominant band of 100–112 kDa. By using an in vitro angiogenesis assay, we demonstrated that serum of heparin-treated cases inhibited both basal and vascular endothelial growth factor-induced capillary-like tube formation.
Conclusions—Heparin likely increases the maternal sFlt-1 through shedding of the extracellular domain of Flt-1 receptor. Our results imply that upregulation of circulating sFlt-1 immunoreactivity in pregnancy is not always associated with adverse outcomes, and that heparin's protective effects, if any, cannot be explained by promotion of angiogenesis.