Pre-eclampsia and Vitamin D | Action Medical Research | Children's Charity | Children's Charity

Pre-eclampsia: a possible link with low vitamin D levels

This research was completed on 18 December 2015

Published on 10 February 2012

Up to eight per cent of pregnant women worldwide develop a serious condition called pre-eclampsia, which is a leading cause of death and illness in both mothers and babies.1 Emerging evidence suggests a link between pre-eclampsia and vitamin D deficiency. Professor Mark Kilby, of the University of Birmingham, is investigating this link, focusing on effects on natural signalling molecules within the human placenta. His work could eventually lead to clinical trials to find out whether taking vitamin D supplements during pregnancy helps to prevent pre-eclampsia.

What is the problem and who does it affect?

"Estimates suggest one in six babies in special care units in the UK are there because their mother developed pre-eclampsia during pregnancy," says Professor Kilby.2 "Pre-eclampsia puts the lives of both mother and baby in danger, but there are few signs and symptoms, so it can go undiagnosed until it becomes severe."

Women with the most severe symptoms can suffer high blood pressure, convulsions, strokes, liver and kidney failure, and life-threatening bleeding. In the UK, antenatal check-ups mean the most serious symptoms are rare, but several hundred babies and around six women still die here each year from complications caused by pre-eclampsia.3

Treatment can help tackle some symptoms, lowering blood pressure and reducing the risk of convulsions. However, it does not slow the underlying progression of the disease.

In fact, the only way to cure pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby early, which can prove life saving for mothers and babies. However, premature birth brings its own risks. Also, the babies may be worryingly small at birth - women with pre-eclampsia are thought to have placentas that do not work properly, meaning their babies do not always grow very well in the womb.

What is the project trying to achieve?

"Increasing evidence suggests there is an association between pre-eclampsia and vitamin D deficiency," says Professor Kilby. "Up to 95% of pregnant women in the UK may have low vitamin D levels.4 However, we do not have enough evidence to say whether vitamin D deficiency actually causes pre-eclampsia. We are therefore exploring the molecular mechanisms by which low vitamin D levels might lead to pre-eclampsia within the human placenta and in the laboratory."

Professor Kilby is measuring vitamin D levels in blood and placentas from pregnant women, comparing levels in women with and without pre-eclampsia. He is also investigating whether vitamin D affects how the placenta develops during pregnancy and how the immune system works within the placenta. Pre-eclampsia is thought to occur because the placenta is malformed and in particular because the ‘interaction’ between the mother’s circulation and the placenta is abnormal.

"This work could help us decide whether to set up a large-scale clinical trial to find out whether taking vitamin D supplements reduces a pregnant woman’s risk of developing pre-eclampsia," says Professor Kilby.

What are the researchers’ credentials?

Professor Kilby has a long-standing interest in the role of vitamin D within the placenta. He has been collaborating with Dr Shiao Chan since 2000, researching the role of hormones in unborn babies and their placentas. They have published a number of internationally competitive papers on their work.

Project LeaderProfessor M D Kilby
Project team
  • Dr S Chan
LocationSchool of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, College of Medical and Dental Sciences, University of Birmingham and Birmingham Women's Hospital
Duration3 years
Grant awarded10 November 2011
Start date23 April 2012
End date18 December 2015
Grant amount£182,012.00
Grant codeGN1949

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  1. Steegers EA, von Dadelszen P, Duvekot JJ, Pijnenborg R. Pre-eclampsia. Lancet. 2010;376(9741):631-44
  2. Annual Report. Birmingham Women’s Foundation Trust, November 2011.
  3. NHS Choices. Your health, your choices. Pre-eclampsia. Introduction. Website accessed February 2012.
  4. Holmes VA et al. Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency in pregnant women: a longitudinal study. Br J Nutr 2009; 102(6): 876-81. 
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