Molar pregnancy is an abnormal form of pregnancy, characterized by the presence of a hydatidiform mole (or hydatid mole, mola hytadidosa), an anomalous growth containing a nonviable embryo which implants and proliferates within the uterus. A hydatidiform mole is removed upon diagnosis because there is some risk that it may develop into choriocarcinoma, a form of cancer.
Based on morphology, hydatidiform moles can be divided into two types: In complete moles, all the chorionic villi are vesicular, and no sign of embryonic or fetal development is present. In partial moles some villi are vesicular, whereas others appear more normal, and embryonic/fetal development may be seen but the fetus is always malformed and is never viable.
Hydatidiform moles are a common complication of pregnancy, occurring once in every 1000 pregnancies in the US, with much higher rates in Asia (e.g. up to one in 100 pregnancies in Indonesia).
In rare cases a hydatidiform mole co-exists in the uterus with a normal, viable fetus. These cases are due to twinning. The uterus contains two conceptuses: one with an abnormal placenta and no viable fetus (the mole), and one with a normal placenta and a viable fetus. Under careful surveillance it is often possible for the woman to give birth to the normal child and to be cured of the mole.
The etiology of this condition is not completely understood. Potential risk factors may include defects in the egg, abnormalities within the uterus, or nutritional deficiencies. Women under 20 or over 40 years of age have a higher risk. Other risk factors include diets low in protein, folic acid, and carotene. The diploid set of sperm-only DNA means that all chromosomes have sperm-patterned methylation suppression of genes. This leads to overgrowth of the syncytiotrophoblast whereas dual egg-patterned methylation leads to a devotion of resources to the embryo, with an underdeveloped syncytiotrophoblast. This is considered to be the result of evolutionary competition with male genes driving for high investment into the fetus versus female genes driving for resource restriction to maximise the number of children.
In most complete moles, all nuclear genes are inherited from the father, only (androgenesis). In approximately 80% of these androgenetic moles, the most probable mechanism is that an empty egg is fertilized by a single sperm, followed by a duplication of all chromosomes/genes (a process called "endoreduplication"). In approximately 20% of complete moles the most probable mechanism is that an empty egg is fertilised by two sperms. In both cases, the moles are diploid (i.e. there are two copies of every chromosome). In all these cases, the mitochondrial genes are inherited from the mother, as usual.
Most partial moles are triploid (three chromosome sets). The most probable mechanism is that a normal haploid egg is fertilized by two sperms. Thus the nucleus contains one maternal set of genes and two paternal sets.
In rare cases, hydatidiform moles are tetraploid (four chromosome sets) or have other chromosome abnormalities.
A small percentage of hydatidiform moles have biparental diploid genomes, as in normal living persons; they have two sets of chromosomes, one inherited from each biological parent. Some of these moles occur in women who carry mutations in the gene NLRP7, predisposing them towards molar pregnancy. These rare variants of hydatidiform mole may be complete or partial.
The diagnosis is strongly suggested by ultrasound (sonogram), but definitive diagnosis requires histopathological examination. The mole grossly resembles a bunch of grapes ("cluster of grapes" or "honeycombed uterus" or "snow-storm). There is increased trophoblast proliferation and enlarging of the chorionic villi. Angiogenesis in the trophoblasts is impared as well.
Management is more complicated when the mole occurs together with one or more normal fetuses.
In 10 to 15% of cases, hydatidiform moles may develop into invasive moles. This condition is named persistent trophoblastic disesase (PTD). The moles may intrude so far into the uterine wall that hemorrhage or other complications develop. It is for this reason that a post-operative full abdominal and chest x-ray will often be requested.
In 2 to 3% of cases, hydatidiform moles may develop into choriocarcinoma, which is a malignant, rapidly-growing, and metastatic (spreading) form of cancer. Despite these factors which normally indicate a poor prognosis, the rate of cure after treatment with chemotherapy is high.
Over 90% of women with malignant, non-spreading cancer are able to survive and retain their ability to have children. In those with metastatic (spreading) cancer, remission remains at 75 to 85%, although the ability to have children is usually lost.