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New Clues to the Cause of This Deadly Pregnancy Disease

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Pre-eclampsia has always been an enigma to the medical industry.

The reproductive complication affects up to 5 percent of pregnant women. In most cases, symptoms begin to surface after the 20th week of pregnancy and typically show up in the form of high blood pressure. Other indications include fluid retention or abnormal amounts of protein found in urine. If not properly diagnosed and treated, this condition will worsen and lead to further complications, including fits, stroke, damage to liver and blood and, in the most extreme cases, the death of mother and baby.

Little has been known about what causes pre-eclampsia and what, if anything, can women do to protect themselves against it. That may be changing.

New information has recently emerged, based on a five-year, InterPregGen study, revealing that some features in a baby's DNA can increase the risk of its mother developing pre-eclampsia. Though this may not seem like a lot, it is a significant step toward unraveling some of the mystery, and who knows where it will lead.

Though this may not seem like a lot, it is a significant step toward unraveling some of the mystery, and who knows where it will lead.

As part of this massive probe, conducted by genetics experts from the U.K., Iceland, Finland, Norway, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, researchers examined the genetic make-up of 4,380 babies born from pre-eclamptic pregnancies and compared their DNA with over 300,000 healthy individuals.

Dr. Linda Morgan, the studies' coordinator from the University of Nottingham's School of Life Sciences, said, "For many years midwives and obstetricians have known that a woman is more likely to develop pre-eclampsia if her mother or sister had the disorder. More recently research has shown that the condition also runs in the families of men who father pre-eclamptic pregnancies."

She noted that faulty formation of the placenta often accompanied pre-eclampsia, noting that it's the baby's genes that produce the placenta, not the mother's. With that in mind, they set out to look for a link between the baby's DNA and the condition.

"We found there were indeed some features in a baby's DNA that can increase the risk of pre-eclampsia," Morgan said.

Specifically, DNA variations close to the gene that make a protein called sFlt-1 showed significant differences between the babies born from pre-eclamptic pregnancies and the control group. At high levels, sFlt-1 released from the placenta into the mother's bloodstream can cause damage to her blood vessels, leading to high blood pressure and damage to her kidneys, liver and brain. If a baby carried these genetic variants, it increased the risk of that pregnancy being pre-eclamptic.

In other words, aside from maintaining recommended Ob-gyn visits, there is little mom can do to prevent this condition for now.

Dr. Ralph McGinnis, who led the analysis at the Sanger Institute, believes that new insights from this study could form the basis for more effective prevention and treatment of pre-eclampsia in the future, improving the outcome of pregnancy for mother and child.

Where there is science, there is hope, and eventually they will figure it out and put an end to this heartbreaking medical mystery.

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