- Heat shock protein (HSP) 70, a conserved member of the stress protein family, is produced in almost all cell types in response to a wide range of stressful stimuli, and its production has a survival value. Evidence suggests that extracellular HSP70 is involved in the activation of the innate and adaptive immune response. Furthermore, increased mRNA expression of HSP70 has been observed in human fetal membranes following endotoxin stimulation. This study was conducted to determine the changes in amniotic fluid HSP70 concentrations during pregnancy, term and preterm parturition, intra-amniotic infection (IAI), and histologic chorioamnionitis. A cross-sectional study was conducted in 376 pregnant women in the following groups: (1) women with a normal pregnancy who were classified into the following categories: (a) women in the mid-trimester (14-18 weeks) who underwent amniocentesis for genetic indications and delivered normal infants at term (n=72); (b) women at term not in labor (n = 23); and (c) those at term in labor (n = 48). (2) Women with spontaneous preterm labor and intact membranes who were subdivided into the following categories: (a) preterm labor who delivered at term without IAI (n = 42); (b) preterm labor who delivered preterm without IAI (n = 57); and (c) preterm labor and delivery with IAI (n = 30). (3) Women with preterm prelabor rupture of membranes (PROM) with (n = 50) and without (n = 54) IAI. Among patients with preterm labor with intact membranes and preterm PROM who delivered within 72 hours of amniocentesis, placenta, umbilical cord, and chorioamniotic membranes were collected and assessed for the presence or absence of acute inflammatory lesions in the extraplacental membranes (histologic chorioamnionitis) and/or umbilical cords (funisitis). HSP70 concentrations in amniotic fluid were determined using a sensitive and specific immunoassay. Non-parametric statistics were used for analysis. A p value of <0.05 was considered statistically significant. Immunoreactive HSP70 was detected in 88% (332/376) of amniotic fluid samples. The median amniotic fluid HSP70 concentration was significantly higher in women at term without labor than in those in the mid-trimester (term no labor: median 34.9 ng/mL, range 0-78.1 ng/mL vs. mid-trimester; median 6.6 ng/mL, range 0-20.8 ng/mL; p<0.001). Among patients with spontaneous preterm labor and preterm PROM, those with IAI had a significantly higher median amniotic fluid HSP70 concentration than those without IAI (preterm labor with IAI: median 82.9 ng/mL, range 0-500 ng/mL vs. preterm labor without IAI: median 41.7 ng/mL, range 0-244 ng/mL; p = 0.001; preterm PROM with IAI: median 86.5 ng/mL, range 0-428 ng/mL vs. preterm PROM without IAI: median 55.9 ng/mL, range 14.9-299.9 ng/mL; p = 0.007). There was no significant difference in the median amniotic fluid HSP70 concentration between patients with preterm labor who delivered preterm without IAI and those who delivered at term (p = 0.6). However, among patients with preterm labor without IAI, there was an inverse relationship between amniotic fluid concentration of HSP70 and the amniocentesis-to-spontaneous delivery interval (Spearman's Rho = -0.26; p = 0.02). Patients with histologic chorioamnionitis/funisitis had a significantly higher median amniotic fluid HSP70 concentration than those without inflammation (inflammation: median 108.7 ng/mL, range 0-500 ng/mL vs. without inflammation: median 67.9 ng/mL, range 7.1-299.9 ng/mL; p = 0.02). Women at term in labor had a median amniotic fluid concentration of HSP70 significantly higher than those not in labor (term in labor: median 60.7 ng/mL, range 0-359.9 ng/mL vs. term not in labor: median 34.9 ng/mL, range 0-78.1 ng/mL; p = 0.02). Intra-amniotic infection, histologic chorioamnionitis, and term parturition are associated with elevated amniotic fluid HSP70 concentrations. HSP70 plays a role in the host defense mechanism by activating the innate arm of the immune response in women with intrauterine infection. The mechanisms of preterm and term parturition in humans may involve extracellular HSP70.