Collaboration on pre-eclampsia | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - June 2005

Collaboration on pre-eclampsia

In severe cases, the baby may have to be delivered early and every year 500-600 infants die as a result of the condition.

Pre-eclampsia may be common, but it is not well understood, which is why a team of researchers at the University of Edinburgh is about to embark on a two-year study into its causes.

Professor Andrew Calder is leading a team awarded £120,869 by Action Medical Research. Their study will focus on the placenta and the blood vessels in the mother, which are thought to be key factors in pre-eclampsia.

The study explained

Team member Dr Fiona Denison, a former Research Training Fellow, explains, “This is a very exciting study because it combines obstetrics,cardiology and dermatology. This unique collaboration allows us to look at the subject on several fronts.

“We’ll be studying both women who have normal pregnancies and those with pre-eclampsia and will use a variety of techniques to see what’s going on in their blood vessels and in the placenta.

“Our cardiology specialist has designed a technique to measure blood flow in the forearm — this will help us assess differences between women with symptoms of pre-eclampsia and those without.

“Our dermatologist has developed a way of looking at the tiny capillaries under the skin. These blood vessels can become leaky and cause the swelling that we see in women with pre-eclampsia.

“In the lab we will be looking at the structure of the placenta and the blood vessels, and at tissue samples taken during Caesareans. ^We should get a very comprehensive picture of what is going on.^”

It is believed that to get pre-eclampsia, a woman must have a combination of an inefficient placenta and problems with blood flow. Finding out how the placenta and blood vessels work in pregnancy will help unravel the mystery of the condition — one which still results in the deaths of four or five women every year in the UK.


Dr Denison says, “Many pregnant women know what signs to look for, but someone with pre-eclampsia can feel quite well one day and very ill the next. All we can do at the moment is treat the symptoms — reduce the blood pressure for instance — but we can do nothing for the root cause. If a woman has pre-eclampsia, her baby sometimes does not grow well in the womb, and early delivery may be unavoidable.

“We suspect that in some women, the problems of pre-eclampsia don’t end with delivery. The mother may go on to suffer long-term complications such as heart disease and high blood pressure, and of course babies born early also have problems. Ultimately we hope that our research might result in techniques for identifying women at risk, so that a close eye can be kept on them throughout their pregnancy.”

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