Behind the Headlines: 'Holy Grail' test for pre-eclampsia

A simple blood test could detect pre-eclampsia in pregnant women long before symptoms occur, media reports suggest.

The test was developed after UK researchers discovered a link between low levels of the protein VEGF165b in the blood and an increased risk of pre-eclampsia. The test, which could become available within five years, could detect pre-eclampsia as early as the first trimester.

Current urine and blood tests only work after 20 weeks.

Blood tests may save lives

What is the research?
The findings are based on a study of 100 pregnant women, aged 17 to 42, recruited in the first trimester of pregnancy.

Blood samples were taken to calculate VEGF165b levels at week 12 and then during pregnancy at weeks 28, 34 and 37.

The researchers found women who had a normal pregnancy had 10 times the level of the protein VEGF165b - 4.9ng/ml - at week 12 compared with the 25 women who went on to develop pre-eclampsia - 0.46ng/ml.

But at full term there was no significant difference in levels of the protein in healthy and pre-eclampsia pregnancies.

This suggests that a test to measure levels of VEGF165b must be performed at 12 weeks.

What do the researchers say?
Lead researcher Dr Victoria Bills, from the University of Bristol, said: 'Although there is currently no medicine to cure pre-eclampsia, a VEGF test could guide the prescription of aspirin, which decreases the incidence of pre-eclampsia by 15 per cent.

'The test could also help to identify women who should be particularly mindful of the symptoms, and who should be monitored closely by their doctor and midwife with regular fetal growth scans and BP measurement.'

It remains unclear whether the protein contributes to development of the condition, or is a consequence of early changes, added Dr Bills.

What do other researchers say?
Professor Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, said development of the test was a 'Holy Grail' in medicine.

'These researchers have made a vital finding that, if confirmed by other studies, has the potential to translate into a simple test that could potentially save many lives.'

sanjay.tanday@haymarket.com

INFORMING PATIENTS

  • A blood test 12 weeks into pregnancy could detect pre-eclampsia.
  • Low levels of the protein VEGF165b were found at 12 weeks in women who developed pre-eclampsia.
  • The test could be used to identify women who may benefit from aspirin use.

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