Babies’ DNA could hold the key to preventing pre-eclampsia in their mums

A major international study has revealed it’s the baby’s DNA which determines the mother’s risk of developing pre-eclampsia. The new findings could now lead to more effective prevention and treatment of this potentially dangerous pregnancy condition, to help save the lives of thousands of women and babies worldwide.

Pre-eclampsia explained

Affecting around 5-10% of all pregnancies in Australia, pre-eclampsia is a very serious medical disorder that in severe cases (around 1-2%) can put the lives of both the expecting mother and her baby at risk. Occurring only during pregnancy, symptoms of the condition include high blood pressure; severe water retention; kidney dysfunction (where protein leaks into the urine); swelling in the hands, feet and face; headaches; dizziness and vision issues. For babies, the danger lies in them being starved of oxygen and nutrients as the blood flow from the mother’s placenta becomes affected by the condition.

Who is at risk and what happens?

Women having their first baby are more prone to developing pre-eclampsia; with diabetes, high blood pressure, genetic history of the condition and multiple babies also placing a mother more at risk. It can develop any time during the second half of pregnancy, although towards the end is more common, and it’s also the reason for 20% of labour inductions, 15% of c-sections, and 5-10% of pre-term deliveries. If left untreated it can lead to convulsions, kidney failure, liver failure and other life-threatening conditions. Sadly tens of thousands of women and babies worldwide lose their lives every year to the disorder or its associated complications.

Blood pressure and other antental checks are essential during pregnancy

How it’s treated

There is no cure for pre-eclampsia (other than to deliver the baby and placenta), however it can be managed more effectively if closely monitored. Medications, rest or early deliveries are sometimes required. Some women also experience no symptoms whatsoever, so it’s important to have regular antenatal checks with your doctor where urine, blood pressure and other tests will be undertaken.

Study uncovers new links and hope

The five year InterPregGen study was coordinated by Dr. Linda Morgan from the University of Nottingham’s School of Life Sciences, and involved teams from multiple countries and thousands of DNA samples from the UK, Norway, Finland and Iceland. Dr. Morgan says medical experts have always known there was a genetic connection with pre-eclampsia – so if a maternal or paternal relative of the baby had experienced it then the expecting mother was more likely to get it – and they set out to explore this link further.

Their large study is the first to prove that it is in fact the baby’s DNA that determines the mother’s risk of the condition. According to Dr Ralph McGinnis, who led the analysis at the Sanger Institute: “Pre-eclampsia has been recognized since ancient Egypt and Greece as being a danger to the lives of mothers and babies. This first piece of the genetic jigsaw holds substantial promise for unlocking some of the mystery of how pre-eclampsia is caused. Our finding may also enable better prediction of mothers who will become pre-eclamptic when combined with clinical information and with other pieces of the genetic jigsaw that will also surely be discovered in the next few years.” 

Dr. Morgan also states that research into the causes and process of the disease has always been challenging, because pre-eclampsia has its origins in the very early stages of pregnancy when the placenta is formed.

“Now modern genome wide screening and its data analysis allows us to look for clues in the mother’s, father’s and their baby’s DNA,” she says. “We believe the new insights from this study could form the basis for more effective prevention and treatment of pre-eclampsia in the future, and improve the outcome of pregnancy for mother and child.” 

Well that’s certainly good news! Fingers crossed for new discoveries very soon.

If you are currently pregnant, please remember to see your doctor regularly for antenatal checks and be sure to advise them of any symptoms you may be experiencing that could indicate pre-eclampsia.

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