A new blood test for pre-eclampsia could save hundreds of babies’ lives a year in the UK, say researchers.
The bedside test can give a result in 15 minutes and is able to identify 96% of pregnant women at high risk of the condition.
It was developed by British scientists who studied a group of 625 pregnant women from across the UK, 61% of whom were affected by pre-eclampsia.
The condition can damage the kidneys, liver and brain and lead to premature delivery, low birthweight babies, and stillbirths.
Dr Lucy Chappell, senior lecturer in obstetrics at King’s College London, said: “The test is designed to differentiate women with pre-eclampsia from those with high blood pressure alone.
“Current tests for the condition only detect that it’s happening, rather than predicting it, and by that time the disease has progressed and has likely already caused organ damage.
“The test identifies women at high risk for developing pre-eclampsia, so doctors can better monitor and treat the blood pressure. It also prevents unnecessary hospitalisations of those who are not likely to develop pre-eclampsia.”
Pre-eclampsia affects one in 10 UK pregnancies, and between 1% and 2% of pregnant women suffer severe symptoms.
It usually strikes during the second half of pregnancy, or soon after a baby is born.
Besides high blood pressure, other symptoms including fluid retention, severe headache, and vision problems.
In very severe cases, pre-eclampsia may cause fits that are life-threatening to mother and baby. Each year, the condition leads to the deaths of around six or seven women and 1,000 babies in the UK.
The team from Guy’s and St Thomas’ Trust and King’s College found that women with low levels of protein placental growth factor (PIGF) were very likely to develop pre-eclampsia.
Currently the only cure for severe pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby, regardless of how advanced the pregnancy is. The test was able to identify 96% of women in the study who ended up having to give birth within 14 days.
Professor Andrew Shennan, consultant obstetrician at Guy’s and St Thomas’, said: “Around 1,000 babies die every year in the UK because of pre-eclampsia. With an accurate test, some of these babies could have been saved.
“The PlGF blood test means we can now decide with greater certainty if a mother should be closely monitored to see if the baby needs to be delivered early to save its life, or if it is safe to wait and allow the pregnancy to continue.
“It is uncommon for mothers to die from pre-eclampsia in the UK, but many can become seriously ill if the condition is not recognised. These cases can be avoided if the severity of the condition is detected - so this test will save lives.”
The findings are published in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.
Dr Chappell and Prof Shennan now plan to conduct a trial of the test across the UK and Republic of Ireland.
Jane Brewin, chief executive of the baby charity Tommy’s, which co-funded the research, said: “Pre-eclampsia is one of the great unsolved problems of medical science and if it isn’t caught early enough, can in the worst cases lead to the death of both mother and baby. The only solution is to deliver the baby, sometimes at a point in pregnancy when babies will struggle to survive.
“This new test could revolutionise pre-eclampsia treatment so that it is spotted quickly, with greater accuracy, and women’s health managed so that their baby is only delivered when absolutely necessary - ultimately saving lives.”
Gemma Barrett, 32, from Kingston, Surrey, was kept in hospital for more than a week being monitored for suspected pre-eclampsia.
Her condition became serious and she had an emergency Caesarean to deliver her first baby Sebastian at 33 weeks. He was not breathing when he was born and had to be resuscitated.
“Being kept in hospital and monitored was very traumatic,” said Gemma. “I was uncertain about what was happening to me and my baby, as were the doctors. If this test had been available, doctors would have had confirmation that I would develop severe pre-eclampsia and my Caesarean wouldn’t have been an emergency, which caused huge stress for me and my baby.
“I’m keen to have another baby, but know I’m likely to get pre-eclampsia again. This test would give me confidence that if I did have it, the doctors would know in advance if it was going to be a problem and treat me before it became an emergency.”
Are you able to Speak Out Safely? Sign our petition to put pressure on your trust to support an open and transparent NHS.