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Blood Test Identifies Pregnant Women at Higher Risk of Preeclampsia

By LabMedica International staff writers
Posted on 30 Aug 2023
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Image: DNA analysis can tell which women are at higher risk of preeclampsia in later stages of pregnancy (Photo courtesy of Freepik)
Image: DNA analysis can tell which women are at higher risk of preeclampsia in later stages of pregnancy (Photo courtesy of Freepik)

Preeclampsia, a serious pregnancy complication affecting 1 in 40 pregnant women, is characterized by elevated blood pressure. Left untreated, it can lead to organ damage and, in rare instances, maternal or fetal death. As the exact cause remains uncertain, identifying high-risk patients is complex. Now, researchers have discovered that DNA analysis can identify women at higher risk of developing severe preeclampsia during later pregnancy stages. Detecting high-risk patients early will allow for administering preventive medication, significantly reducing the risk of severe preeclampsia.

Around 1 in 8 cases involve early-onset preeclampsia, manifesting between 20 and 34 weeks of pregnancy. Preterm births, often induced due to preeclampsia, require neonatal intensive care and can lead to serious complications. Promptly identifying women with an elevated risk of early preeclampsia is essential for initiating appropriate and preventive treatment, reducing both preeclampsia and potential premature birth risks. Current screening methods are often complex, time-consuming, and unreliable. In order to understand the pivotal role of the placenta, researchers from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium) compared placental DNA in 498 women with and without early preeclampsia.

Normal pregnancy brings changes in placental DNA structure through DNA methylation. However, the researchers found that women developing early preeclampsia exhibited a distinct DNA methylation pattern. While the cause of this difference remains unknown, it can allow physicians to identify high-risk women and initiate treatment before symptoms emerge. The new test offers a significant advantage: it can be conducted using DNA from a simple blood sample taken around the 12th week of pregnancy. Given that blood samples are routinely taken for non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) to identify fetal chromosomal abnormalities, additional placental samples or cells are not necessary.

"In time, our analysis can be carried out simultaneously with the NIPT test,” said Professor Bernard Thienpont who led the research. “But first, we will focus on implementing our new method on a larger scale, optimizing and validating it. We also want to investigate whether certain women would benefit more from preventive screening, for example, in the case of a first pregnancy."

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