Discovery of protein mishaps like those linked with Alzheimer's disease spurs new preeclampsia test

July 18, 2014

Research has identified a potential cause of and a better diagnostic method for preeclampsia. An international team led by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital has discovered that the disease may result from a collection of protein mishaps like those associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Their findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, have already led to an affordable, fast, and accurate urine test that could revolutionize the diagnosis of preeclampsia in resource-poor nations.

“We were studying the urine of pregnant women with preeclampsia and noticed these improperly folded proteins, and that was the ‘Eureka!’ moment,” says Irina A. Buhimschi, MD, first author of the paper. “It meant that preeclampsia could be similar to other protein misfolding diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and mad cow disease.”

Researchers found that, in women with preeclampsia, the placenta was clogged with misfolded protein material similar to that found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s. To carry out their functions properly, proteins must fold themselves into precise three-dimensional structures. Misfolded proteins, which fail to morph into their intended shape, are unable to function correctly. These proteins try to travel to and from the mother and baby on what is essentially a busy highway, Buhimschi explains, but the misfolded proteins build up in the mother's body and in the placenta and cause a traffic jam.

To better understand the presence and importance of these proteins in the urine of pregnant women with preeclampsia, the team used a dye called Congo Red, which was known to bind proteins such as amyloid (associated with Alzheimer’s) based on previous research done with other protein misfolding conditions. When this dye was used to test the urine of pregnant women, researchers found that it helped identify both the presence and future severity of preeclampsia.

The studies resulting in this publication have already led to a paper-based Congo Red Dot urine test for preeclampsia. “The test can help identify preeclampsia and predict its severity even before clinical symptoms appear,” Buhimschi explains. Read the study abstract.

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