A new study has shown that pregnant women with pre-eclampsia have unusually high levels of a chemical compound called 'ergothioneine', which is found in unpasteurised food, in the red blood cells.
The finding made by scientists at the University of Leeds attains significance because they suggest that ergothioneine is an indicator of pre-eclampsia, and may help scientists to understand the cause of the condition, which is currently unknown.
The researchers took blood samples from a group of 37 pregnant women, and compared the red blood cells from women with pre-eclampsia with those from women with no symptoms.
Ergothioneine is already well known to be made by micro-organisms that are commonly found in foods like unpasteurised dairy products. Since humans cannot synthesise it, the compound finds its way into human cells exclusively through our diet.
Pregnant women are not advised against eating fungi or foods such as unpasteurised dairy products which contain ergothioneine producing fungi. In fact, scientific studies on animals highlight the benefit of ergothioneine.
"These results suggest that a higher level of ergothioneine is an indicator of pre-eclampsia," says lead researcher Dr. Julie Fisher, a chemist at the University of Leeds.
"I would not recommend that pregnant women stop eating fungi. However, the high concentration of ergothioneine in the red blood cells of women with pre-eclampsia is a very interesting finding - the more we know about the chemicals involved in the disease the closer we get to understanding what causes it," says Professor James Walker, Professor of Obstetrics at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine (LIMM), and a co-author of the research.
The symptoms of pre-eclampsia include high blood pressure, protein in urine and fluid retention and affects almost 10 per cent of pregnancies after 20 weeks. If left untreated, the condition can cause a range of problems, such as growth restriction in babies and even foetal and maternal mortality. There is no known cause of the condition.
"Ergothioneine is known as an antioxidant and antioxidants have been proposed to be helpful in reducing the risk of preeclampsia. It is therefore very interesting that we have found it to be in excess for women with the condition," says Dr. Fisher.
The researchers used a technique that is based on the same science as MRI scans, but which operates on fluids taken from the body, to identify chemicals in the red blood cells of pregnant women.
They say that the amount of these chemicals was found to depend on whether the women were healthy or whether they were suffering from pre-eclampsia.
They previously found that chemical markers for pre-eclampsia also exist in blood plasma.