Shedding new light on pre-eclampsia | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - September 2018

Shedding new light on pre-eclampsia

Pre-eclampsia can endanger the lives of both mother and child. Research funded by Action has now shown that it may be linked to the mother’s heart function prior to pregnancy.

Pre-eclampsia affects up to six per cent of pregnancies and is diagnosed by high blood pressure in the mum-to-be. In severe cases it can be life-threatening and as a result around 1,000 babies die each year in the UK, mainly because they had to be delivered prematurely.

With Action funding awarded in 2016, researchers at Imperial College London tracked the health of more than 200 women before and during pregnancy.

The women were all outwardly healthy, with a normal weight and blood pressure. However, the researchers found differences in the pre-pregnancy heart function and blood circulation of those who went on to develop either pre-eclampsia or another complication called fetal growth restriction.

While still technically within normal range, these women’s hearts pumped less blood per minute than those who went on to have uncomplicated pregnancies, and their blood vessels were more resistant to blood flow. This caused their blood pressure, prior to pregnancy, to be at a higher point within the normal range.

Lead researcher Dr Christoph Lees says: “Pre-eclampsia and fetal growth restriction can have serious consequences, yet we’re still largely in the dark about their root cause – and how to prevent them.

“These findings suggest pre-existing issues with the heart and circulation may play a role – and provide an important piece of the jigsaw puzzle.”

Larger studies are now needed to confirm the findings, and future research will look at the potential for screening women to identify those at risk. Researchers are also now exploring whether lifestyle changes made before pregnancy could help improve heart function and circulation, and lower the risk of these complications.

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