World first pre-eclampsia test could save hundreds of babies

04 November 2013

The lives of hundreds of babies a year in the UK could be saved thanks to a rapid blood test that can accurately diagnose pre-eclampsia for the first time.

Researchers at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust and King's College London have discovered that testing the level of a protein called placental growth factor (PlGF) in pregnant women before 35 weeks can accurately diagnose pre-eclampsia, a severe type of high blood pressure in pregnancy that is potentially fatal for the mother and baby.

The only cure for severe pre-eclampsia is to deliver the baby - regardless of how far advanced the pregnancy is.

Results of the study show that the PlGF blood test, which is done at the bedside and gives an accurate result in just 15 minutes, identifies 96 per cent of women who will need to be delivered within the next 14 days.

Professor Andrew Shennan, consultant obstetrician at Guy's and St Thomas', said: "Around 1,000 babies die every year in the UK because of pre-eclampsia. With an accurate test, some of these babies could have been saved.

"The PlGF blood test means we can now decide with greater certainty if a mother should be closely monitored to see if the baby needs to be delivered early to save its life, or if it is safe to wait and allow the pregnancy to continue.

"It is uncommon for mothers to die from pre-eclampsia in the UK, but many can become seriously ill if the condition is not recognised. These cases can be avoided if the severity of the condition is detected - so this test will save lives."

Currently, high blood pressure and the presence of protein in the urine are used to diagnose pre-eclampsia. Both of these signs can be unreliable and take days to confirm.

The research study shows that pregnant women who have a very low level of PlGF have severe pre-eclampsia, and the average time before they need to deliver their baby will be less than two weeks.

If a pregnant woman has a high level of PlGF, it is very unlikely that she has severe pre-eclampsia and will need to give birth in the next 14 days. Most of these women will carry their baby to full term.

Dr Lucy Chappell, clinical senior lecturer in obstetrics at King's College London, and co-author of the study, said: "The PlGF test will allow us to identify these women who require closer monitoring, giving the right package of care to the right women.

"This research is going to change how we work and make a difference to thousands of women and babies who may be affected by pre-eclampsia. It is an extremely exciting development."

Dr Chappell and Professor Shennan are now planning a trial across the UK and Ireland where the test results will be directly used to improve the care of pregnant women.

The paper, Diagnostic Accuracy of Placental Growth Factor in Women With Suspected Preeclampsia, is published in Circulation.

  • A new rapid blood test can accurately diagnose pre-eclampsia, a severe type of high blood pressure in pregnancy that is potentially fatal for the mother and baby. Results of the test identify when a baby needs to be delivered within 14 days and when it is safe to wait and let the pregnancy continue.
  • Pre-eclampsia affects 1 in 10 pregnancies. Severe pre-eclampsia affects 1-2 in every 100 pregnancies.
  • The study was jointly funded by baby charity Tommy's and Alere, who manufacture the Alere Triage PlGF test.