Page last updated at 06:59 GMT, Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Screening hope for pre-eclampsia

By Helen Briggs
BBC News

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Karen Partridge, from Bristol, developed pre-eclampsia twice

A blood test that screens pregnant woman for pre-eclampsia long before symptoms develop could be available in the next five years, doctors predict.

The condition, which leads to the deaths of 1,000 babies each year in the UK alone, could be detected as early as the first trimester, a study suggests.

A predictive test could save many lives by enabling closer monitoring of high-risk pregnancies, experts say.

Routine urine and blood pressure checks can pick it up only after 20 weeks.

These researchers have made a vital finding that, if confirmed by other studies, has the potential to translate into a simple test that could potentially save many lives
Prof Jeremy Pearson
British Heart Foundation

The condition is managed for as long as possible with aspirin and extra monitoring, but delivery is the only cure.

Dr Victoria Bills, lead researcher on the study, published in Clinical Science Journal, said the discovery of a protein in the blood that appears to be linked with pre-eclampsia may be used to predict the condition early on in pregnancy.

"I would certainly hope that within my lifetime as an obstetrician - potentially in the next five to ten years - that possibly we may be able to develop a simple blood test which we can offer to women as early as 12 weeks in order to quantify whether they are at high-risk of developing pre-eclampsia later on in that pregnancy ," she told the BBC.

She said the substance, which goes by the full name VEGF165b, might give a clue to the cause of pre-eclampsia, and possibly eventually a way to prevent it.

Dr Victoria Bills talks about her research

"If a test is available for the condition, I think people will want to know, because even though we don't have a cure for it, research shows that if we give women low-dose aspirin, it lowers their risk," Dr Bills explained.

Commenting on the study of 70 patients, Donald Peebles, consultant in obstetrics at University College Hospital, London, said it was part of a massive effort by researchers worldwide to predict poor pregnancy outcome, particularly pre-eclampsia and premature labour.

He said the research needed to be carried out on bigger numbers of patients and compared with other proteins that might also indicate early signs of pre-eclampsia.

"This is a very useful part of the development of a screening test for the prediction of pre-eclampsia," he said.

A screening test will probably be available in the next five years, he added.

Pre-eclampsia
Affects women in the later stages of pregnancy
Symptoms include high blood pressure, protein in urine, swelling and, in severe cases, liver problems and seizures
Can also affect the unborn baby, causing growth impairment in the womb and the need for premature delivery

Developing a predictive test for pre-eclampsia is regarded by some experts as a "holy grail" in medicine.

Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, which funded the research, said: "These researchers have made a vital finding that, if confirmed by other studies, has the potential to translate into a simple test that could potentially save many lives."

The work was carried out at St Michael's Hospital, Bristol, and the University of Bristol. The team measured levels of the chemical in pregnant women at 12 weeks and then at intervals throughout gestation.

They found that in normal pregnancies there was a large increase in the protein by the end of the first trimester, but in women who went on to develop pre-eclampsia it barely increased at all.

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