A new biomarker study opens possibilities for early detection of preeclampsia 

Complications of pregnancy or childbirth linked to gestational hypertension are Chile’s primary cause of maternal and perinatal death.     

It is not known what causes it, but its consequences are known. Preeclampsia is a disease that affects 1 in every 15 pregnancies and causes 25% of maternal deaths in our country, in addition to being associated with abnormal fetal growth, premature delivery and even the death of the fetus in gestation.     

Until now, the diagnosis of this disease is made from the 20th week of pregnancy, by clinical changes such as increased blood pressure and excessive weight gain and laboratory changes such as loss of protein in the urine in pregnancy controls. Due to its severity, early detection of the disease – that is, before it becomes clinically evident – allows the timely follow-up of these patients and interventions that can help prevent complications in the mother and her child. However, the predictive capacity for managing these patients remains very limited.       

A study led by the Center for Biomedical Research and Innovation (CiiB) of the Universidad de los Andes and the IMPACT Center of Excellence established that the presence of an RNA (ribonucleic acid) molecule in the blood plasma during the first weeks of pregnancy is associated with the risk of developing preeclampsia, which was validated by studying the placentas of the patients participating in the research. This molecule has a high potential as a biomarker because RNA is easier to detect and quantify at relatively low costs, thanks to the technologies available in clinical laboratories.       

IMPACT researcher and one of the study’s lead authors, Gino Nardocci, explains that biomarkers “are molecules that both identify and predict a pathology or condition of a patient. In the case of our research, we studied an RNA molecule that has a high specificity and is overexpressed in the blood plasma and placenta of patients with preeclampsia,” he says.     

This breakthrough offers an excellent opportunity for the early detection of this disease and, therefore, a life-saving treatment. “Currently, preeclampsia is diagnosed as early as the 20th week of gestation with the traditional methods of taking blood pressure and urine samples to evaluate the presence of proteins. With this biomarker, we could detect it from the beginning of pregnancy, and this would be even before the symptoms appear. Preeclampsia is an important health problem considering that between 5% and 8% of pregnancies in Chile have it. Detecting patients at risk of developing preeclampsia early in pregnancy in asymptomatic patients, opens a window of opportunity to make interventions that prevent the onset of the clinical picture, thus avoiding the complications associated with it,” says Sebastian Illanes, a gynecologist at the Clínica Universidad de los Andes and part of the research team of the IMPACT Center.  

In the second stage, the study will focus on analyzing other biomarkers that help to predict and diagnose this pathology early. “I think we have a great projection for the future because if we identify different biomarkers, if we have a final pattern, this technology will be affordable for people with a great potential for identification,” concluded Nardocci.      

The IMPACT Center of Excellence is led by the Universidad de los Andes and has funding from the National Agency for Innovation and Development, ANID; the participation of the Pontificia Universidad Católica, Universidad de Chile, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, and Universidad de La Frontera, as well as the collaboration of the Clínica Universidad de los Andes.

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