Scientists have uncovered a possible mechanism and a new treatment for pre-eclampsia, the pregnancy problem that affects about 5% of women and causes high blood pressure and kidney failure and can be fatal for both mother and baby.
The root cause of the condition isn't known, but now, writing in the journal Nature, Harvard researcher Raghu Kallari and his colleagues have found that mice lacking a gene called comt (catechol-o-methyl-transferase, COMT) develop a very similar syndrome.
COMT is present in the placenta (as well as elsewhere in the body), where it deactivates adrenaline and also converts oestrogens into a metabolite called 2-ME (2-methoxyoestadiol). The researchers therefore wondered whether giving extra 2-ME to their mice would prevent the problem, which it did. And intriguingly, tests on women with pre-eclampsia showed that they too had low 2-ME levels and low levels on COMT in their blood.
This suggests, say the researchers, that administering 2-ME to a patient with pre-eclampsia could halt or at least mitigate the symptoms, allowing the pregnancy to progress for longer, improving the chances for the baby.
The wonderful thing about 2-ME, says Kalluri, is that it is already naturally present during pregnancy, so it's not as though doctors would be giving something to the mother and baby that they are not being exposed to already. But in the meantime, these findings also suggest that it might be possible to measure levels of 2-ME and COMT to predict who is at risk of the condition, and confirm the diagnosis early.