Oxidative stress occurs when cellular levels of reactive oxygen species exceed anti-oxidant capabilities and has been implicated in the pathogenesis of pre-eclampsia. In this study we have examined the tissue levels of endogenous anti-oxidant proteins (superoxide dismutase, glutathione peroxidase, thioredoxin reductase and thioredoxin) and the level of lipid and protein oxidation in placental samples from normal and pre-eclamptic pregnancies. Pre-eclamptic tissue homogenates demonstrated significantly increased levels of lipid peroxidation (20.68 +/- 7.811 microM protein versus 5.33 +/- 4.03 microM/mg protein, P < 0.001) and a trended increase in protein carbonyl concentration (248.1 +/- 97.71 units/mg protein versus 209.7 +/- 82.6 U/mg protein) when compared to controls. The levels and activities of the anti-oxidant proteins superoxide dismutase (2.48 +/- 0.6 U/mg protein versus 2.02 +/- 0.51 U/mg protein, P <0.02), thioredoxin reductase (19.25 +/- 9.81 U/mg protein versus 13.02 +/- 5.66 U/mg protein,P = 0.02), thioredoxin (107.00 +/- 18.11 ng/mg protein versus 91.12 +/- 21.18 ng/mg protein, P = 0.02) and glutathione peroxidase (17.33 +/- 6.63 mmol/min/mg protein versus 11.50 +/- 3.11 mmol/min/mg, P < 0.02) were all found to be significantly reduced when comparing pre-eclamptic placental tissue homogenates to gestational age-matched control placentae from non-pre-eclamptic pregnancies. The results of this study demonstrate a decreased enzymatic anti-oxidant capacity and increased oxidation in placental tissue from pre-eclamptic women, which may contribute to the pathogenesis of this complex disorder.