Scientists at Tel Aviv University have developed a breakthrough method for the early detection of preeclampsia, one of the most dangerous pregnancy complications and the leading cause of maternal and prenatal mortality.
The scientists believe their findings, which were published on Tuesday in Scientific Report, can serve to develop a simple blood test to predict the disease, from which some 14,000 pregnant Israeli women suffer annually.
In severe cases, preeclampsia may lead to red-blood-cell breakdown, a low blood-platelet count, impaired liver function and swelling or visual disturbances. If untreated it may result in seizures.
In a bid to detect signs for the future occurrence of preeclampsia, the scientists detected biological characteristics that appear in the women’s blood in the first trimester of pregnancy, before the disease symptoms appear. They monitored thousands of pregnant women, from whom they took blood samples in the 12th week of pregnancy. After the pregnancies were completed, the scientists focused on 75 samples: 35 from women who suffered from the disease eventually and some 40 samples from women who completed a healthy pregnancy, with the latter serving as a control group. They extracted some 20 million RNA molecules from every sample.
The scientists subjected the RNA molecules – the genetic material that expresses the DNA in the protein production process – to New Generation genetic sequencing.
Liron Yoffe of TAU used advanced instruments to calculate the specific differences between the RNA molecules of the women who eventually suffered from preeclampsia and those of the healthy women. The analysis detected 25 molecules that could serve as potential biomarkers for the early diagnosis of the disease.
Preeclampsia narrows the blood vessels and can cause high blood pressure, headaches, impaired vision, upper abdomen pains and edema. In more severe cases it can cause lung or brain edema and lead to liver dysfunction, premature childbirth or death. The disease usually appears in the second half of pregnancy, from the 20th week on. In addition to endangering the mother, it can harm the fetus’ development.
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The study was directed by Dr. Noam Shomron of TAU’s medical school and Prof. Moshe Hod, head of the Women’s Hospital at Rabin Medical Center and president of the European Association of Perinatal Medicine.
“Up to 8 percent of women could contract preeclampsia during the second or third pregnancy term,” Shomron said. “It’s a serious disease that endangers their health and sometimes the fetus’ life. It’s unpredictable and its causes are unknown, but there’s a simple, proven preventive treatment: a low aspirin dose from the 16th week of pregnancy at the latest, until the end of the pregnancy.
“The findings lay the foundation for developing a simple blood test to predict preeclampsia, but they also prove that RNA molecules can be used as biological characteristics already in the early pregnancy stage,” says Shomron. “They are part of a global trend to conduct pregnancy tests in the first term.”