Placental system A activity is important for the supply of neutral amino acids needed for fetal growth. There are three system A isoforms: SNAT1, SNAT2 and SNAT4, but the contribution of each to system A-mediated transport is unknown. Here, we have used immunohistochemistry to demonstrate that all three isoforms are present in the syncytiotrophoblast suggesting each plays a role in amino acid transport across the placenta. We next tested the hypothesis that the SNAT4 isoform is functional in microvillous plasma membrane vesicles (MVM) from normal human placenta using a method which exploits the unique property of SNAT4 to transport both cationic amino acids as well as the system A-specific substrate MeAIB. The data show that SNAT4 contribution to system A-specific amino acid transport across MVM is higher in first trimester placenta compared to term (approx. 70% and 33%, respectively, P < 0.01). Further experiments performed under more physiological conditions using intact placental villous fragments suggest a contribution of SNAT4 to system A activity in first trimester placenta but minimal contribution at term. In agreement, Western blotting revealed that SNAT4 protein expression is higher in first trimester MVM compared to term (P < 0.05). This study provides the first evidence of SNAT4 activity in human placenta and demonstrates the contribution of SNAT4 to system A-mediated transport decreases between first trimester and term: our data lead us to speculate that at later stages of gestation SNAT1 and/or SNAT2 are more important for the supply of amino acids required for normal fetal growth
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