Researchers have stumbled across a major breakthrough in their quest to treat the potentially fatal pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia.
Pre-eclampsia occurs when the placenta releases a toxin into the mother’s bloodstream, damaging her organs and forcing the early delivery of her baby.
It affects about one in 20 pregnancies, killing an estimated 70,000 women around the world each year, and there is no medical treatment.
But a team from Melbourne’s Mercy Hospital has found Nexium, a drug used to treat reflux, could stop the production of the toxins.
Dr Natalie Hannan from Melbourne’s Mercy Hospital said the discovery was “exciting” as it meant babies would be able to remain in the womb for longer.
She said the diagnosis for pre-eclampsia came in the middle of most pregnancies, forcing clinicians to deliver the baby early in order to save the mother.
“So we hope that this medication will actually enable the mother to have a longer pregnancy safely, in order to get the baby better grown for a time to come out that is more safe,” she said.
Dr Hannan said the discovery could potentially save the lives of both mother and baby.
“Both for the mother, because it will keep the disease at bay — we hope,” she said.
“And also for the child to give them longer inside mum, which is always better … and then we can deliver them safely.”
Research was ‘stumbled upon’
Dr Hannan said they had “serendipitously” stumbled upon the research that revealed the reflux drug affected an antioxidant response in the gut.
And she said once they knew that they began to consider how it could work with pre-eclampsia cases.
“So we tested in the lab to see whether or not we could block these proteins and whether we could protect a mother’s blood vessels,” she said.
Dr Hannan said they found that they could block the proteins from being released from the diseased placenta, as well as protect the mother’s blood vessels.
“And in small animal studies in the lab we could also prevent the disease becoming so significant at the end of the pregnancy,” she said.
Dr Hannan said international trials were set to begin soon in South Africa, where there are high rates of pre-eclampsia.
“We’ve currently got a clinical trial running with our clinical collaborators over in South Africa and we’re about three-quarters of the way through recruiting patients,” she said.
“We should have results for that towards the end of this year.”