The aim of the present study was to determine the variations in the balance between total (free plus combined) circulating α and β subunits of human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) throughout human pregnancy.
The equivalence between the International Units (IU) of hCG (IRP 75/537) and those assigned to the α (IRP 75/569) and β (IRP 75/551) free subunits was experimentally determined by using intact and thermally dissociated hCG. Heat exposure (2 min at 100 °C) of hCG preparations resulted in a complete dissociation of hCG into free, soluble and intact α and β subunits. The hCG and α and β subunit contents of unaltered and heated hCG preparations were assessed by specific immunoradiometric assays. The amount of immunoreactive subunits dissociated by heat from hCG could then be evaluated on a molar basis.
Circulating hCG and its free α and β subunits were immunoassayed in 836 blood samples collected from healthy pregnant women at different gestational ages. After conversion of hCG and its subunits into a common IU system, the gestational profiles of the total amounts (free plus combined) of α- and βhCG subunits increased together and peaked at 9–10 weeks of gestation. Thereafter, total α and β subunits decreased and subsequently remained stable until term. The decline in total αhCG subunit was less marked than that of total βhCG subunit. The α- to βhCG ratio was equimolar until 10 weeks of gestation when it increased almost fourfold until term (P<0·0001). Finally, the free fraction of the total circulating αhCG subunit represented 5–7% in early pregnancy but reached 60–70% in the last trimester (P<0·0001). In contrast, the free fraction of the total βhCG subunit decreased slightly from 4–5% of total β subunit in early pregnancy to 2–3% at term (P<0·0001).
The present study suggests that thermal dissociation of hCG is a useful method with which to calibrate immunoassays on a molar basis in order to assess circulating levels of the heterodimer and its subunits.
Journal of Endocrinology (1994) 140, 513–520