By: Laurie Edwards for Uterus1
New study results from the Institute of Child Health and Human Development – part of the National Institutes of Health – found that a test measuring the protein levels in the urine of pregnant women can accurately predict the development of preeclampsia, a serious and potentially fatal condition characterized by dangerously high blood pressure levels.
One out of every 20 pregnancies in the United States is affected by this condition, making it one of the most significant causes of death among women and babies in the world.
Researches found that women who eventually developed preeclampsia had lower levels of two substances – placental growth factor (PIGF) and vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF). Working together, both these substances normally help maintain the growth of blood vessels in the placenta that support the growing fetus.
Eclampsia, the end result of preeclampsia, most often occurs 20 weeks or more into the pregnancy and contributes to seizures, kidney failures or strokes in mothers. It occurs when the blood vessels that supply the placenta constrict when they are supposed to expand.
If babies survive, they are born prematurely and as such, are more prone to other birth complications, including blindness, mental retardation or cerebral palsy.
Dr. Duane Alexander, head of the NICHD, sees the new test is an important step towards both detection and prevention of the condition.
“We may have reached a turning point in the extensive federal research investigation of this frequent, life-threatening complication of pregnancy. This finding sets the stage for the development of a test to screen women for high risk of preeclampsia. Once these women are identified through such a test, we can target studies to find effective ways to prevent its progression or to keep the most dangerous complications from occurring,” he said.
In the past, physicians tried to prevent preeclampsia by monitoring blood pressure, but in many cases, once blood pressure was elevated, it was too late to prevent eclampsia.
The study appeared in the Jan. 5 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association and was a collaborative effort on behalf of the NICHD and several major universities and teaching hospitals.
In the study, researchers analyzed stored urine samples of 120 women who developed preeclampsia and 118 women who did not. The samples were collected from three different stages in pregnancy, and revealed that levels of PGIF were much lower in the women who had preeclampsia.
These developments are encouraging to experts hoping to find evidence of the disease earlier and with more ease for the patients.
“A simple urine test could help predict the onset of this disease [preeclampsia] one to two before the onset of clinical symptoms and that could make a tremendous difference in outcome for patients, in particular those women who have limited access to specialized medical care,” said study author Dr. S. Ananth Karumanchi of Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, whose team’s prior work in diagnosing preeclampsia formed the foundation of this latest study.
In countries and areas where trained medical staff is lacking, a urine test would be much easier than a blood test since patients can collect it at home and bring it in for analysis.
Researchers hope to be able to refine the urine test even further by testing urine from more than three points during pregnancy to more precisely define when PIGF levels drop. They also plan to screen much larger groups of women to compare individual levels of PIGF.