In a breakthrough discovery, researchers at the University of Leeds have uncovered a new way of diagnosing pre-eclampsia, a condition which affects almost one in ten pregnant women and accounts for up to 15pct of all premature deliveries.
Within five years, the researchers are planning to develop a user-friendly diagnostic kit which could be used in hospitals all over the world to safely and speedily test all pregnant women.
It has been estimated that the saving of a predictor for the NHS alone will possibly go up to 500m pounds a year along with the reduction in medical care required for the mother and her baby.
Dr Julie Fisher, Reader in Biological NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) and PhD student Elizabeth Turner from the School of Chemistry conducted the research with Jimmy Walker, Professor of Obstetrics at St James's University Hospital.
Now it's possible for the researchers to distinguish between healthy pregnant women and those with pre-eclampsia by studying samples of their blood plasma taken at the same time as routine blood samples.
Pre-eclampsia is characterised by high blood pressure and protein in urine and fluid retention. In the absence of treatment, the condition can lead to a range of problems such as growth restriction in babies and even foetal and maternal mortality.
To identify chemicals in the blood plasma of pregnant women, a technique was used, which was based on the same science as MRI scans but operating on fluids taken from the body. However, the amount of these blood plasma chemicals was found to depend on whether the women were healthy or whether they were suffering from pre-eclampsia.
"The concentration of certain chemicals such as amino acids and fat in the body has been found to vary in a way which is dependent on the health of the woman. We have found that some of these chemicals increase in concentration when the woman is suffering from pre-eclampsia whilst others decrease," said Dr Fisher.
"Currently, we monitor all pregnant women in antenatal clinics for signs of pre-eclampsia which develops after 20 weeks of pregnancy. If an early prognostic tool was to become available, doctors and midwives could focus their attention and resources on caring for those more likely to develop the condition and instigate methods of prevention. This would be of significant benefit to the mother and her baby as well as the health service," said Professor Walker.
According to Dr Fisher, eventually her work may be used as a basis for trying to find a cure for the condition.
"It is a long way down the line, but if we know what biological chemicals are affected by the disease, then we may be able to determine its cause and ultimately work towards preventing pre-eclampsia," she said.
The discovery has now been patented and is being developed by a spin-out company, MetaBio Ltd.
The findings were published last year in the medical journal Hypertension in Pregnancy and another paper on the subject will be published in the same journal in the spring.