Researchers Identify Biomarkers That May Help Detect Preeclampsia Risk

Pregnant person in hospital gown sitting on hospital bed near window

Key Takeaways

  • Preeclampsia is a dangerous condition that affects 10-15 percent 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. It's a treatable condition in the majority of pregnancies, but if left untreated in some cases it can lead to premature birth 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 early detection of the condition.

A recent study discovered biomarkers that could aid in early detection of preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening pregnancy complication.

This 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, Haythe 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 uncommon, affecting under 10% of the pregnant population , it is dangerous and should be taken seriously. According to OBGYN Dr. Fernando Mariz, signs can include: 

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

Dr. Jennifer Haythe, Associate Professor of Medicine in the Center for Advanced Cardiac Care at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Co-Director of the Columbia Women's Heart Center and Director of the Cardio-Obstetric Program with a speciality in the care of pregnant women, 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 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.

— Fernando Mariz, MD

Dr. Fernando Mariz, New York City OBGYN adds, “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."

"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 Mariz.

Preeclampsia Risk Factors

The primary known risk factors for developing preeclampsia outside of having dealt with it previously are higher weight and existing issues with high blood pressure. There is also data to support the statement that Black women and women of color develop preeclampsia at higher rates than white women.

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 risk for developing preeclampsia. Several genes have been identified with potential links to the disease.” says 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 Mariz.

Mariz says, "You should maintain close surveillance under the care of your OBGYN. 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. If you experience a severe headache, significant abdominal pain, particularly if right-sided, vision loss or visual changes, urinating less frequently, or having problems with bleeding, call your OBGYN as soon as you can."

What This Means For You

While preeclampsia cannot always be prevented, there is increasing data around factors that can determine the risk-factor of those who want to carry a pregnancy, and proper precautions like maintaining healthy blood pressure can be enacted.

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4 Sources
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  1. 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

  2. English FA, Kenny LC, McCarthy FP. Risk factors and effective management of preeclampsiaIntegr Blood Press Control. 2015;8:7-12. Published 2015 Mar 3. doi:10.2147/IBPC.S50641

  3. 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

  4. 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.

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