Breakthrough in detection of pre-eclampsia may save lives of hundreds of babies

Condition severely affects two in every 100 pregnant women and test could save lives of hundreds of babies every year

Health Reporter

The lives of hundreds of babies could be saved every year thanks to a simple 15-minute blood test developed at an NHS hospital, which is set to revolutionise the way doctors treat pre-eclampsia - a serious condition that severely affects two in every 100 pregnant women.

Described as "one of the great unsolved mysteries of medical science", pre-eclampsia is a severe type of high blood pressure which can lead to fits that can be fatal for mother and baby.

The only way to cure it is to deliver the baby. Thousands of babies have to be delivered early to prevent the condition worsening and hundreds die because of the complications of an early birth. In the UK, around 1,000 new-born babies die because of pre-eclampsia every year. It also causes the deaths of six to seven women each year. 

Until now, the only way to diagnose the condition has been to check for high blood pressure and measure protein levels in urine, but both tests are unreliable, meaning that the condition is often missed. Doctors also have no clear way of telling how severe the condition is, leading to thousands of precautionary - and risky - early deliveries.

But a new test, developed by researchers at London's Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital, was found to identify 96 per cent of women who had the condition and needed their baby to be delivered within two weeks.

The blood test, which gives an accurate result in just 15 minutes, measures the level of placental growth factor (PIGF) in the blood. The results of a study into the test's efficacy showed that women who have a very low PIGF level have severe pre-eclampsia, meaning their baby should be delivered in the next 14 days. But those with a high level are very unlikely to have a severe form of the condition - regardless of their other symptoms - and can safely carry their baby until full term.

The study was published today in the American Heart Association journal Circulation.

Professor Andrew Shennan, a consultant obstetrician at Guy's and St Thomas', who led the study, told The Independent that the new test represented the "most important advance" in obstetrics that he had seen in 20 years of working in the speciality.

"This test tells you in minutes if a person has a disease that matters or not," he said. "It will radically change how we manage these women. It's not expensive and it's more effective than all the other tests that we have combined."

pre-eclampsia affects one in 10 pregnancies, and is severe in around 10 to 20 per cent of cases. It is believed to be caused by problems in the placenta, the organ which connects the baby's blood supply to the mother's.

A UK-wide trial of the blood test is now planned. Professor Shennan said that he had already been in discussions with the Department of Health, and hoped to see the blood test placed on a fast-track for commissioning throughout the NHS.

The breakthrough has the potential to save thousands of lives worldwide if adopted internationally. Professor Shennan said healthcare systems in other countries were watching the trials "very closely".

The study was jointly funded by the baby charity Tommy's and the company which manufactures the test, Alere.

Jane Brewin, chief executive of Tommy's, said: "pre-eclampsia is one of the great unsolved problems of medical science and if it isn't caught early enough, can in the worst cases lead to the death of both mother and baby…This new test could revolutionise pre-eclampsia treatment so that it is spotted quickly, with greater accuracy, and women's health managed so that their baby is only delivered when absolutely necessary - ultimately saving lives."


Gemma Barrett, 32, from Kingston, was kept in hospital for more than a week being monitored for suspected pre-eclampsia. Her condition became serious and she had an emergency caesarean to deliver Sebastian, her first baby, at 33 weeks. Sebastian was not breathing when he was born and had to be resuscitated.

She says: "Being kept in hospital and monitored was very traumatic. I was uncertain about what was happening to me and my baby, as were the doctors. If this test had been available, doctors would have had confirmation that I would develop severe pre-eclampsia and my caesarean wouldn't have been an emergency, which caused huge stress for me and my baby.

"I'm keen to have another baby, but know I'm likely to get pre-eclampsia again. This test would give me confidence that if I did have it, the doctors would know in advance if it was going to be a problem and treat me before it became an emergency."

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas