Cool research result of the day: predicting preeclampsia

Researchers at the University of Iowa published a paper today with some very cool, highly impactful results related to understanding preeclampsia: a dangerous hypertensive disorder in pregnant women known for rapid onset. Preeclampsia is life-threatening for both the mother and the baby. Today there is no test that predicts who is at risk for preeclampsia during pregnancy.

The researchers started with an observation: in other known hypertensive disorders, blood tests showed high levels of a hormone called vasopressin which is secreted by the pituitary gland. They suspected that vasopressin might have a role in preeclampsia as well. So they conducted an experiment in which they gave vasopressin injections to pregnant mice.  Those mice then showed many of the classic symptoms of preeclampsia.

Unfortunately, vasopressin levels in the bloodstream can fluctuate rapidly, so even if those levels were sometimes elevated early on in the pregnancy of a woman at high risk for developing preeclampsia, it would be a hit-or-miss endeavor to try to take a blood sample at the right time. But fortunately, there is another chemical, copeptin, which is secreted into the bloodstream simultaneously with vasopressin, and copeptin stays around much longer with steadier levels. The researchers studied blood samples throughout the pregnancy of a large number of women, and found that women who later developed preeclampsia had consistently higher levels of copeptin, starting as early as six weeks into the pregnancy.

This is amazing news, as it gives the healthcare community a way to identify women at high risk very early on. Unfortunately there is no cure or preventive therapy¬†— though the vasopressin connection is a good start at finding one — but this would allow for close monitoring of women at risk and rapid response at onset. This will save many lives; 5% to 7% of pregnant women in the US are affected with preeclampsia — about 500,000 per year.

The researchers are doing a follow-on study to see if copeptin levels are also higher in urine samples, which would allow for easier, cheaper testing — and potentially self-administered tests at home.

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