Researchers pave way for early detection of pre-eclampsia

Researchers at KU Leuven have discovered that an analysis of the placenta's DNA structure can indicate whether a woman is at high risk of pre-eclampsia. Testing could significantly reduce the risk of severe complications during pregnancy. The study results were published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Medicine.

Pre-eclampsia is a severe complication that occurs in one in 40 pregnancies. It is characterised by high blood pressure in the mother, which can damage multiple organs and, in exceptional cases, lead to the mother or baby's death.

The only way to lower the blood pressure is often to induce labour. In one in eight cases, pre-eclampsia occurs between 20 and 34 weeks of pregnancy, forcing babies to be born prematurely, which can lead to severe complications. 

As the exact cause of pre-eclampsia is not yet known, it is difficult to identify patients at risk. Screening is often unreliable, complex and time-consuming. However, the placenta is known to play an important role. For this reason, researchers at KU Leuven compared the DNA structure in the placenta of 498 women with and without premature pre-eclampsia. 

"This will allow us to treat women before they develop symptoms"

"It is normal for the structure of the placenta's DNA to change during pregnancy, a process driven by 'DNA methylation'," says Professor Bernard Thienpont, who led the research. "But we see a different pattern of DNA methylation in women who develop premature pre-eclampsia. The mechanism behind this difference is not yet known, but it already allows us to identify women at increased risk. This will allow us to treat them before they develop symptoms."

The most effective treatment for preventing severe pre-eclampsia is aspirin. The drug reduces the risk by 60 to 80 per cent. With aspirin, any pre-eclampsia will not develop until later in the pregnancy, delaying a possible premature birth. This can make a big difference to the development and health of the baby. "However, taking aspirin during every pregnancy as a precaution against pre-eclampsia is not desirable," the researchers say.

The DNA analysis can be done through a simple blood sample around the 12th week of pregnancy. Non-invasive prenatal testing (NIPT) around this time is already standard in Belgium. As NIPT is also performed via a blood test, the new DNA analysis could eventually be carried out simultaneously without the need for additional samples or cells from the placenta. 


#FlandersNewsService | © BELGA PHOTO JASPER JACOBS

Get updates in your mailbox

By clicking "Subscribe" I confirm I have read and agree to the Privacy Policy.


Belga News Agency delivers dependable, rapid and high-quality information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, from Belgium and abroad to all Belgian media. The information covers all sectors, from politics, economics and finance to social affairs, sports and culture, not to mention entertainment and lifestyle.

Every day, our journalists and press photographers produce hundreds of photos and news stories, dozens of online information items, plus audio and video bulletins, all in both national languages. Since the end of March 2022 English has been added as a language.

For public institutions, businesses and various organisations that need reliable information, Belga News Agency also offers a comprehensive range of corporate services to meet all their communication needs.


Arduinkaai 29 1000 Brussels