Canadian researchers believe they’ve discovered a simple blood test to predict a mysterious blood pressure disorder in pregnant women that is one of the leading causes of mother and infant death in the world.
“We’re really excited about this finding,” said Dr. Clifford Librach, a researcher from Sunnybrook and Women’s College Health Sciences Centre. “I think it’s really an advance in this area and something we hope will prevent this disease in the future.”
Pre-eclampsia appears – often suddenly – in the later stages of about one in 12 pregnancies. In mothers-to-be, skyrocketing blood pressure can cause seizures, stroke and liver complications; infants can be stillborn or experience fetal distress.
A simple test early in pregnancy could play a vital role in helping doctors plan prenatal care for at-risk women and their unborn children. None currently exists.
“This allows us to be more vigilant and see the woman more often and pick up the problem early enough that it doesn’t become a more serious problem for mom and baby,” said Librach.
The researchers found that women who develop pre-eclampsia show low levels of the protective HLA-G molecule early in pregnancy – even as early as the first few months, according to their study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The HLA-G molecule is secreted by the placenta and serves to disguise the baby’s genetic material so that the mother’s immune system doesn’t reject the developing child.
While there are currently few treatment options, doctors might choose to deliver a child earlier than planned to avoid the onset of severe, life-threatening symptoms.
Reliable early detection is also necessary to help researchers develop effective treatments in the future.
Working out of Sunnybrook, Librach and Shang-mian Yie collaborated with Dr. Robert Taylor of the University of California, San Francisco, on the research.
The researchers admit their study sample was small – they compared only a dozen women who developed pre-eclampsia during their pregnancies to 12 others in a control group who did not have the condition.
“More studies on larger numbers of pregnant women need to be done to determine if this test can be used on a routine basis,” said Librach.
He said his team plans to continue its study and hopes to proceed to clinical trials of an early test in the next few years.