Vascular complications in early pregnancy

Understanding the causes of preeclampsia

If you’re a woman with children, you’ve probably heard about preeclampsia; it's a disease of high blood pressure during pregnancy, affecting around 3 to 5 per cent of all pregnancies and is life-threatening for both mother and the unborn child. Delivery of the baby and placenta eases all of the symptoms of preeclampsia, but there are still lasting effects: mothers with a history of preeclampsia have around double the risk of heart disease later in life.

Our Vascular Immunology Group has a principal interest in understanding the causes and progression of preeclampsia. New work by Dr Bei Xu from the Vascular Immunology Group has investigated events which occur early in pregnancy, as the placenta establishes the food source for the growing embryo.

In this study, Heart Research Institute researchers examined ‘cultured cells’ – human cells grown in a lab flask – to investigate the interaction of placental cells with cells of the uterus wall, to understand better how abnormal development of the placenta might lead to preeclampsia.

The study, published in the journal Placenta, showed that early damage to the placenta from toxins and inflammation is potentially reversible, perhaps giving an approach to stave off preeclampsia.

“Natural compounds in the mother’s blood vessels and bloodstream (particularly a gas called nitric oxide) can stop damage from toxins, and also reduce inflammation in small blood vessels,” says Dr Xu. “Interestingly, this gas also helps keep the mothers blood pressure lower in pregnancy.”

The Vascular Immunology Group hopes that this discovery will lead to a potential avenue for therapies for preeclampsia.

 “Targeting these toxins may well help with blood pressure control in human pregnancy,” says Dr Xu.

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