Preeclampsia “has puzzled scientists for years,” according to the lead research scientist who recently presented the findings of his study on the molecular signals that occur in human placentas. His discoveries offer hope for drug therapies that could be used in the future to treat preeclampsia before any harm is done.

Blood pressureMohammad N. Uddin presented this new understanding of preeclampsia on April 28 at the 2014 annual meeting of Experimental Biology, where thousands of research scientists from all over the world come together each year to share the latest scientific developments in many disciplines. In addition to his research, Uddin is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Temple.

Uddin’s research team examined protein expression in samples of 20 human placentas and their umbilical cords. The samples came from 10 women with preeclampsia and 10 without it. Parallel studies were conducted on lab rat placentas.

Uddin likens the work of the placenta to a trading post: blood, nutrients, and oxygen from the mother are trucked in through the placenta, transported down the umbilical cord, and into the developing fetus that, in turn, uses the same route to expel waste products and oxygen-depleted blood. An organ system this busy relies on an extremely large number of molecular signals to function properly. Uddin’s mission was to find out if these signals were going bad, leading to or as a result of preeclampsia.

Molecular signals throughout the body are governed by proteins. In the preeclamptic tissue samples, the number of three specific proteins related to stress and cell death were extremely higher than in the samples of women who did not have preeclampsia:

 

  • 140% more Bax/Bcl-2, which programs the death of cells
  • 250% more Cox-2, associated with inflammation and pain
  • 300% more p38 MAPK, involved with cellular stress

The researchers theorize these molecular stress factors could interfere with nutrient transport and send “bad signals” to the maternal blood system. To determine if the babies were affected by these bad molecular signals, the research team analyzed the babies’ delivery records.

In the healthy mothers:

  • The babies spent an average of three days in the hospital
  • The babies experienced no complications

In preeclamptic mothers:

  • The babies spent an average of six days in the hospital
  • 1 baby had low blood sugar
  • 4 were jaundiced
  • 3 had respiratory distress syndrome
  • 1 had extra and fused digits
  • 1 was overdue
  • 1 had abnormal abdominal fluid accumulation
  • 1 had intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)

Uddin says long-term complications to babies born of preeclamptic mothers include:

  • Aortic wall thickening, a marker for childhood atherosclerosis
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Hearing disabilities
  • Hypertension
  • Increased risk for metabolic disorders
  • Increased risk for stroke
  • Intellectual disabilities
  • Neurodevelopmental delay
  • Type 2 diabetes

Uddin hopes his team’s findings will lead to drugs that block the build-up or slow the activity level of the molecules that send the bad signals associated with preeclampsia.

Source: “Potential drug targets for preeclampsia patients identified.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, LLC. Apr 28, 2014. Web. May 10, 2014.