NEWS

Researchers Identify Biomarkers That May Help Detect Preeclampsia Risk

Pregnant person in hospital gown sitting on hospital bed near window

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Key Takeaways

  • Preeclampsia is a dangerous condition that affects at least 2% to 8% of pregnant people.
  • Researchers believe that the elusive condition is a result of many mutated genes rather than one.

Preeclampsia is a dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure and poor function of the liver and kidneys. Preeclampsia often leads to premature birth, and if left untreated poses serious harm to the fetus and the pregnant person or even death.

A 2020 study in Scientific Reports found that CMP (Circulating Microparticles) characteristics within the placenta are likely to be different for pregnancies that result in preeclampsia, which could be helpful information in the early detection of the condition.

Researchers discovered biomarkers that could aid in the early detection of preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication. The study showed that by the 10th or 12th week of pregnancy, CMP proteins within individuals that would later be diagnosed with preeclampsia already differed from those with healthy pregnancies.

What Are CMPs?

Researchers believe that CMPs, which are virus-sized particles, act as a “mediator” of cellular function. These particles contain proteins and allow communication between cells, resulting in an inside look at tissues through secretions they are found within, including but not limited to saliva, semen, and spinal fluid.

Four specific proteins were identified, and when examining these proteins among their participants, researchers found that a more severe version of preeclampsia was also associated with proteins that are connected to immune system dysfunction, with another potential dysfunction being connected to blood platelets.

Because preeclampsia treatment has not changed much over the past 100 years, it is still relatively elusive. Presently, the primary treatment once identified is to deliver the baby.

However, Jennifer Haythe, MD, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine in the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care at Columbia University Irving Medical Center with a specialty in the care of pregnant people adds, "Strict blood pressure control, corticosteroids to treat HELLP syndrome, and help the baby's lung maturation for preterm birth, as well as magnesium infusions to prevent seizures are usually given."

What is Preeclampsia?

Preeclampsia is a condition that negatively affects both the pregnant parent and the unborn child. This condition is characterized by the onset of high blood pressure and proteinuria. The latter is high levels of protein within urine, which can be dangerous as it affects kidney function.

While this condition is relatively uncommon, affecting under 10% of the pregnant population, it is dangerous and should be taken seriously. According to Fernando Mariz, MD, an OB/GYN practicing in New York City at Manhattan Women’s Health and Wellness, signs can include: 

  • Abdominal pain
  • Changes in vision
  • Headaches
  • High blood pressure
  • Lack of urination
  • Uncontrollable bleeding or bruising

Dr. Haythe reminds us that HELLP syndrome, "...a constellation of blood issues and elevated liver enzymes" is another common occurrence.

Fernando Mariz, MD

Preeclampsia is still one of the leading causes of maternal death due to its potentially aggressive nature. Uncontrolled preeclampsia can lead to maternal problems including severe headache, pain, seizures, respiratory arrest, uncontrollable bleeding, multiple organ failure, stroke, and death.

— Fernando Mariz, MD

“Preeclampsia is still one of the leading causes of maternal deaths due to its potentially aggressive nature. Uncontrolled preeclampsia can lead to maternal problems including severe headache, pain, seizures, respiratory arrest, uncontrollable bleeding, multiple organ failure, stroke, and death," says Dr. Mariz.

The dangers of preeclampsia are not limited to the pregnant person. "Risks to the fetus are also present and include fetuses that don’t grow appropriately, problems with the placenta separating from the uterus, and even fetal death,” says Dr. Mariz.

Preeclampsia Risk Factors

The primary known risk factors for developing preeclampsia include having it in a previous pregnancy, obesity, and existing issues with high blood pressure. Black people also develop preeclampsia at higher rates than white people.

Even with this, because researchers believe that it is a polygenic condition - occurring as a result of multiple gene mutations rather than just one - identifying further potential gene markers could be helpful in detection. “Because of this, it is difficult to pinpoint which gene or genes have the most significant impact on raising the risk for developing preeclampsia. Several genes have been identified with potential links to the disease,” says Dr. Mariz. 

What Can Be Done if Diagnosed?

There are presently no major preventative methods for developing the condition outside of prescribed aspirin, though this may not be safe for every pregnant person. "Do not take aspirin without discussing it with your physician however as it can increase your risk for dangerous bleeding if used inappropriately,” warns Dr. Mariz.

Dr. Mariz says, "You should maintain close surveillance under the care of your OB/GYN. You will need extra monitoring likely including ultrasounds and frequent doctor visits for bloodwork and blood pressure monitoring. Avoid caffeine, drugs, and tobacco as all of these can increase your blood pressure. Monitor your symptoms."

Warning signs that warrant an immediate call to your doctor include experiencing a severe headache, significant abdominal pain, particularly if right-sided, vision loss or visual changes, less frequent urination, or having problems with bleeding.

What This Means For You

While preeclampsia cannot always be prevented, there is increasing data on factors that can determine the potential risk for those who want to carry a pregnancy, and proper precautions like maintaining healthy blood pressure and body weight can be enacted.

6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Jeyabalan A. Epidemiology of preeclampsia: impact of obesity. Nutr Rev. 2013t;71 Suppl 1(0 1):S18-25. doi:10.1111/nure.12055

  2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Preeclampsia and high blood pressure during pregnancy.

  3. McElrath TF, Cantonwine DE, Gray KJ, et al. Late first trimester circulating microparticle proteins predict the risk of preeclampsia < 35 weeks and suggest phenotypic differences among affected casesSci Rep. 2020;10(1):17353. Published 2020 Oct 21. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-74078-w

  4. English FA, Kenny LC, McCarthy FP. Risk factors and effective management of preeclampsiaIntegr Blood Press Control. 2015;8:7-12. doi:10.2147/IBPC.S50641

  5. Fox R, Kitt J, Leeson P, Aye CYL, Lewandowski AJ. Preeclampsia: Risk Factors, Diagnosis, Management, and the Cardiovascular Impact on the OffspringJ Clin Med. 2019;8(10):1625. Published 2019 Oct 4. doi:10.3390/jcm8101625

  6. Ghosh G, Grewal J, Männistö T, et al. Racial/ethnic differences in pregnancy-related hypertensive disease in nulliparous womenEthn Dis. 2014;24(3):283-289.

Additional Reading