The placentas of women who suffer preeclampsia during pregnancy have an overabundance of a gene associated with the regulation of the body's immune system, scientists have revealed.
The discovery by researchers at North Carolina State University may lead to improved screening and prenatal care for these patients and their babies.
Preeclampsia, a disorder is usually marked by a rapid rise in blood pressure that can lead to stroke, seizures or organ failures in the mother. Researchers have recently begun looking at preeclampsia as an autoimmune disorder, in which the mother's body treats the placenta like an invader, but they weren't sure of the genetic mechanisms involved.
Dr. Jorge Piedrahita, professor of genomics, along with colleagues from NC State and the Duke University School of Medicine, examined the genetic makeup of placentas from women with preeclampsia and compared the results to those from normal pregnancies.
"When we looked at the preeclampsic placentas, we found that several genes associated with a particular autoimmune pathway were 'upregulated' - basically, that there were more of them in placentas of preeclampsic women than in normal placentas," Piedrahita said.
"More specifically, we found the upregulation of a particular enzyme involved in sialic acid modification called SIAE. Sialic acid coats every cell in our body, making it possible for our immune system to distinguish 'self' from 'not-self.' If this process is disrupted, the body can end up attacking itself."
"Now we know that disregulation of SIAE helps start the cascade. We've been able to fill in the blanks, and hopefully pregnant women and their babies will benefit as a result, Piedrahita added.
The study has been published in the journal Placenta.