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GDF15 linked to maternal risk of nausea and vomiting during pregnancy

Updated: May 1


Nature Review Disease Primers Logo

Published: 13 December 2023

Pregnant woman with nausea on a bed.


GDF15, a hormone acting on the brainstem, has been implicated in the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy, including its most severe form, hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), but a full mechanistic understanding is lacking1,2,3,4. Here we report that fetal production of GDF15 and maternal sensitivity to it both contribute substantially to the risk of HG. We confirmed that higher GDF15 levels in maternal blood are associated with vomiting in pregnancy and HG. Using mass spectrometry to detect a naturally labelled GDF15 variant, we demonstrate that the vast majority of GDF15 in the maternal plasma is derived from the feto-placental unit. By studying carriers of rare and common genetic variants, we found that low levels of GDF15 in the non-pregnant state increase the risk of developing HG. Conversely, women with β-thalassaemia, a condition in which GDF15 levels are chronically high5, report very low levels of nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. In mice, the acute food intake response to a bolus of GDF15 is influenced bi-directionally by prior levels of circulating GDF15 in a manner suggesting that this system is susceptible to desensitization. Our findings support a putative causal role for fetally derived GDF15 in the nausea and vomiting of human pregnancy, with maternal sensitivity, at least partly determined by prepregnancy exposure to the hormone, being a major influence on its severity. They also suggest mechanism-based approaches to the treatment and prevention of HG.

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