Researchers discover cause of preeclampsia

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Preeclampsia hope

Researchers believe they’ve found a primary cause of the potentially deadly pregnancy condition, preeclampsia.

The most common pregnancy medical disorder, preeclampsia can be life-threatening for both mum and baby. But there’s new hope, with scientists discovering an important piece of the puzzle. And it may mean future treatment is as simple as taking medication.

Preeclampsia affects up to 10 percent of all Australian pregnancies and until now, the cause has been known.

Uncovering the cause of preeclampsia

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After years of research, scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology say the primary cause of preeclampsia appears to be cholesterol crystals.

“We’ve found a missing piece to the puzzle. Cholesterol crystals are the key and we’re the first to bring this to light,” said researcher Gabriela Silva. “A pregnancy is actually a kind of natural inflammatory condition, and in the case of preeclampsia, the inflammation has become too strong and leads to disease.”

When a mum-to-be develops preeclampsia, the placenta doesn’t develop properly, meaning the baby doesn’t get enough nutrition. While sometimes the symptoms are mild, in some cases it’s so severe that the baby has to be delivered early. Because the cause hasn’t yet been found, the current treatment is simply to monitor and treat the symptoms.

Cholesterol could be the key

It’s been known for some time that mums who have had preeclampsia have an increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease later on in life. So researchers looked at this link, studying the cholesterol of pregnant women with preeclampsia.

As the researchers explained, “Cholesterol crystals are found in plaque that clogs blood vessels. The crystals are formed when bad cholesterol accumulates in the blood vessel walls. Studies have shown that cholesterol crystals are a particularly powerful initiator of inflammation in the body and can cause the blood to clot.

“Cholesterol crystals are identified as harmful substances in the body that need to be cleared out. But the defence cells that come in to do the job aren’t able to break them down. They call for reinforcements, and more immune cells come in, to no avail. The immune response runs wild, and the inflammatory process escalates.”

Ms Silva discovered that this inflammation is at its highest in the maternal-fetal interface – this is where the mum’s cells come in direct contact with her baby’s. “This direct contact means that the inflammation directly affects the communication between mother and fetus and contributes to even greater inflammation in the mother,” she explained.

Ms Silva says future preeclampsia treatment could be as simple as taking cholesterol-lowering medications, but more research is needed.

What is preeclampsia

Preeclampsia leads to dangerously high blood pressure, and the cause is unknown. But there are some women who are at a higher risk of developing the condition, including those who are:

  • having their first baby
  • have a history of pre-eclampsia in a previous pregnancy
  • have a family history of pre-eclampsia or high blood pressure under age 20 and over age 40
  • having twins or multiples
  • have high blood pressure before pregnancy
  • have kidney disease before pregnancy
  • have diabetes
  • have a body mass index (BMI) over 30

Untreated, preeclampsia can cause the mother to suffer liver or kidney failure, seizures, stroke, and death. For unborn babies, it can affect the placenta, leading to slower growth in the womb, a low birth weight, premature birth, and in some cases, death.

Preeclampsia symptoms

Early symptoms

  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • proteinuria (protein in the urine)

While you may not notice these early symptoms a doctor or midwife should pick them up during a routine appointment.

Progressive symptoms

  • sudden swelling of the feet, ankles, face and hands
  • severe headaches
  • vision problems, such as blurring or seeing flashing lights
  • dizziness
  • pain in the upper abdomen (just below the ribs)
  • shortness of breath
  • nausea and vomiting
  • excessive weight gain due to fluid retention
  • feeling generally unwell

Read next …

We have a lot of birth stories on the site and here a few from mums who have experienced preeclampsia:

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