Preeclampsia is a potentially dangerous complication facing pregnant women, but new research suggests an experimental test may be able to get ahead of the illness.
Researchers at Kings College London say they've developed a new test that can predict which women will have the condition. Their findings were published Nov. 4 in the American Heart Association's journal, Circulation.
"The test is designed to differentiate women with preeclampsia from those with high blood pressure alone," study author Dr. Lucy Chappell, a clinical senior lecturer in obstetrics at King's College, said in a press release. "Current tests for the condition only detect that it's happening, rather than predicting it, and by that time the disease has progressed and has likely already caused organ damage.
Preeclampsia is a severe form of high blood pressure marked by excess protein in the urine. It affects about 8 to 10 percent of pregnant women in the U.S., according to the AHA. Symptoms that seem to occur with preeclampsia include persistent headaches, abdominal pain and blurred vision or light sensitivity.
When left untreated, it can lead to potentially fatal complications for both mom and baby, according to the Mayo Clinic. It can damage a mother's kidneys, liver and brain but also lead to complications in the fetus, such as premature delivery, low birth weight and stillbirth, according to the study's authors.
Traditional tests to diagnose it are inexact, and include monitoring high blood pressure or excess protein in urine. The researchers say those are unreliable due to poor accuracy and physician error, and can't predict the likelihood it will occur./
For the study, researchers retroactively looked at blood test results taken from 625 women who gave birth at various U.K pregnancy centers. About 61 percent developed preeclampsia.
The researchers were looking for presence of a protein called protein placental growth factor (PIGF) in the samples. Recent research suggests PIGF levels are abnormally low in women with preeclampsia compared to women without.
"If you have very low levels of this protein called placental growth factor, it reflects the fact that your placenta is not growing well, and that is at the heart of the disease" Chappell told CBS News' Alphonso Van Marsh.
In a normal pregnancy, the PIGF levels range from about 100 to 3,000 picograms per milliliter (pg/mL) and won't decrease during pregnancy.
If the protein levels were below 100 pg/mL, researchers said they could accurately predict the mom would develop preeclampsia.
The researchers also found that if a woman's PlGF levels fell below that threshold before her 35th week of pregnancy, her baby was likely to be delivered within two weeks.
Chappell called for more studies to determine how PIGF levels could predict a diagnosis or how to treat preeclampsia.
Preeclampsia is only cured by delivering the baby, which could present challenges for both doctor and the mom if the condition is discovered early in the pregnancy. A woman may be put on medications, bed rest or told to frequently visit her doctor. If a woman is diagnosed with preeclampsia later in the pregnancy, she may have to have her labor induced.
Gemma Barrett, a preeclampsia patient in the U.K. told Van Marsh she found out she had the condition when she was 33 weeks pregnant, and experienced complications during delivery.
"The fear of 'I've carried this baby for 33 weeks, what's going to happen now' was horrendous," she said.
She worries about developing the condition again in the future.
"If we were lucky enough to get pregnant again, I would be very keen to have this test," she said.