Congenital malformations, including neural tube defects (NTDs), are significantly increased in the offspring of diabetic mothers. We previously reported that in the embryos of a mouse model of diabetic pregnancy, NTDs are associated with reduced expression of the gene Pax-3, which encodes a transcription factor that regulates neural tube development, and that reduced expression of Pax-3 leads to neuroepithelial apoptosis. In this study, we used three approaches to test whether glucose alone could be responsible for these adverse effects of diabetes on embryonic development. First, primary culture of embryo tissue in medium containing 15 mmol/l glucose inhibited Pax-3 expression compared with culture in medium containing 5 mmol/l glucose. Second, inducing hyperglycemia in pregnant mice by subcutaneous glucose administration significantly inhibited Pax-3 expression (P < 0.05), as demonstrated by quantitative reverse transcription-polymerase chain reaction assay of Pax-3 mRNA, and also increased neural tube apoptosis (P < 0.05). NTDs were significantly increased in glucose-injected pregnancies when blood glucose levels were >250 mg/dl (P < 0.002) but not in moderately hyperglycemic pregnancies (150-250 mg/dl, P = 0.37). Third, phlorizin administration to pregnant diabetic mice reduced blood glucose levels and the rate of NTDs. As seen with glucose-injected pregnancies, the rate of NTDs in phlorizin-treated diabetic pregnancies was related to the severity of hyperglycemia, since NTDs were significantly increased in severely hyperglycemic (>250 mg/dl) diabetic pregnancies (P < 0.001) but not in moderately hyperglycemic pregnancies (150-250 mg/dl, P = 0.35). These two findings, that elevated glucose alone can cause the changes in Pax-3 expression observed during diabetic pregnancy and that the NTD rate rises with significant increases in blood glucose levels, suggest that congenital malformations associated with diabetic pregnancy are caused by disruption of regulatory gene expression in the embryo in response to elevated glucose.

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