Research published today in Nature Communications Biology shows how women who will develop potentially life-threatening disorders during pregnancy can be identified early when hormone levels in the placenta are tested in a simple blood sample. Several researchers from the IMS-MRL contributed to the study which was led by the Cambridge University Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience.
Pregnancy disorders affect around one in ten pregnant women. Nearly all the organ systems of the mother’s body need to alter their function during pregnancy so that the baby can grow. If the mother’s body cannot properly adapt to the growing baby this leads to major and common issues including fetal growth restriction, fetal over-growth, gestational diabetes, and preeclampsia – a life-threatening high blood pressure in the mother. Pregnancy disorders are usually diagnosed during the second or third trimester of gestation when they have often already had a serious impact on the health of the mother and baby and current methods are not sensitive or reliable enough to identify all at risk pregnancies.
The research team developed a method that allowed them to create a comprehensive map of hormones in mouse placentae and compared them to blood samples from women who had uneventful pregnancies and those who developed gestational diabetes. The map was then compared with datasets from studies of the human placenta and pregnancy outcomes and this revealed a lot of biological overlap.
They explored whether these biomarkers were detectable during pregnancy in a study that tracked pregnancy outcomes in women at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and found that identifying biomarkers in blood samples taken during early pregnancy could lead to earlier diagnosis of complications allowing treatment to begin more quickly.
Lead author Dr Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri said:
“We found that these biomarkers are present from the first trimester of pregnancy….We also identified several specific transcription factors – proteins within the cell that turn on or off genes – that are likely to govern the production of placental hormones which have important implications for understanding how we may improve pregnancy outcomes.”
Dr Claire Meek, a Diabetes UK – funded doctor and researcher at the IMS said:
“This new test might be able to identify gestational diabetes earlier in pregnancy, providing opportunities to prevent the disease, or to protect mums and babies from the most harmful complications.”
The team is now working to assess whether these discoveries could improve clinical care in future, either through earlier diagnosis or to provide new opportunities to treat pregnancy complications by targeting the placenta.