February 10, 2020

When preparing for motherhood, no mom-to-be should have to worry about a potentially life-threatening illness. And thanks to the work of researchers at Wisconsin National Primate Research Center (WiNPRC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW), we’re one step closer to controlling a disease which exclusively affects pregnant women.

Preeclampsia raises a mother’s blood pressure, threatening both her life and her baby’s. Symptoms usually include water retention and protein in the urine, as well as rarer and more severe effects like liver or kidney failure.

The disease is treatable if detected early and handled with regular prenatal care, but no one knows its cause or how to prevent it. However, two studies by WiNPRC researchers have offered promising insights.

In one study, researchers discovered testosterone levels in preeclamptic women are elevated two to three times above normal levels. Animal models of preeclampsia also showed patterns and levels of increases in testosterone mimicking those found in women. This correlated positively with vascular dysfunction and higher placental androgen (hormone) receptor gene expression.

In a closely related study, scientists using an animal model found maternal vascular adaptation to pregnancy is critical for blood flow through the placenta to the developing baby. If vasculature can’t properly adapt, the mother may develop preeclampsia and other hypertensive disorders.

These discoveries could help scientists create life-saving treatments.

“With these confirmed animal models of preeclampsia, we can now dig deeper to uncover the etiology and pathogenesis of preeclampsia to gain a better understanding of the disorder and advance treatments and preventions for women,” explained David Abbott, Ph.D., of WiNPRC.

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