Worldwide, pre-eclampsia is one of the leading causes of illness and death for mothers-to-be and their babies according to the World Health Organisation. It affects two to eight per cent of pregnancies worldwide, and five to eight per cent of those affected in developing countries go on to develop eclampsia – a condition that causes pregnant women to have seizures.
“Overall this equates to around 10 million women developing pre-eclampsia each year and roughly 76,000 women dying from the condition and similar disorders caused by high blood pressure,” explains Professor Stefan Hanson, A1M Pharma’s chief clinician. “And we don’t only deal with one patient, the unborn children can die too because they are born prematurely. It’s estimated that almost half a million unborn babies die as a result of pre-eclampsia and worldwide about 15 per cent of all babies born prematurely are because of pre-eclampsia.”
In 2011, the World Health Organisation set out guidelines to improve treatment and care for women with pre-eclampsia in a bid to improve health and reduce deaths caused by the condition. These recommendations include giving pregnant women with pre-eclampsia calcium supplements, inducing labour early for women with serious side effects from pre-eclampsia, and giving aspirin and anti-hypertensive drugs for those at high risk of the condition.
Within these guidelines the World Health Organisation also recognised that doctors need better ways to diagnose pre-eclampsia.
In the developing world, there is little access to healthcare and fewer skilled health workers, which means that pre-eclampsia often progresses to a more severe form before it is treated, or it is not treated at all. While in developed countries pre-eclampsia is currently diagnosed using blood pressure checks and urine tests in regular pregnancy check-up appointments. But, unfortunately, these tests are unreliable and can often only spot the disease once it has become more serious.
A1M’s pre-eclampsia test
In order to spot the condition more accurately and at an earlier stage research has turned to finding individual biochemical markers, which only identify women with pre-eclampsia. One example of this is the work we’re doing at A1M Pharma, where we are developing a pre-eclampsia test based on the amount of foetal haemoglobin in the mother’s blood.
As we’ve explained before, A1M Pharma scientists believe that pre-eclampsia is caused by the baby producing extra haemoglobin – a part of the blood that carries oxygen – because there is a weaker connection between the baby and the placenta, meaning less oxygen gets to the baby. But this extra haemoglobin has a dark side where it soon becomes toxic, causing damaging molecules to form which attack the placenta and blood vessels and leak into the mother’s system and attacking her body too.
Studies have shown that women with pre-eclampsia have nine times more foetal haemoglobin in their blood than normal.
Our test looks out for this by using a simple blood test which could predict whether a mother will develop pre-eclampsia as early as the 12th week of the pregnancy.
Results have been promising and we hope for it to become a test that is used in the clinic one day, but right now, the test is only used for research purposes and will need to be tested in clinical trials first.
However, it could hold great promise for the future by spotting women with the condition sooner so they can be better monitored and treated. In turn this could reduce the number of women needing to be hospitalised during their pregnancy, prevent long-lasting effects on the mother and child’s health and reduce the number of pre-eclampsia deaths.