London: Scientists have identified genetic errors that raise a woman`s risk of developing pre-eclampsia, a breakthrough they say could lead to new drugs to prevent the potentially life-threatening condition that affects one in 20 pregnancies.
Pre-eclampsia, a severe condition of high blood pressure coupled with leaky kidneys, usually develops after the 20th week of pregnancy. It kills around 10 women and 1,000 unborn babies a year in Britain alone.
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis looked at more than 300 pregnant women and found that three faulty genes were shared by some of the women who went on to develop pre-eclampsia, the Daily Mail reported.
According to the researchers, 60 of these women, who were otherwise healthy, were hospitalised because they developed severe pre-eclampsia.
Of the remaining women, who were being monitored for other health complications, about 40 also went on to develop the condition.
In these women, the scientists identified three genes that involved in the body`s immune response and found seven women had mutations in at least one of these genes.
The mutations were also found in five of 59 women with pre-eclampsia who were otherwise healthy, the researchers reported in the PLoS Medicine journal.
The three genes are linked to a rare and potentially fatal condition called atypical haemolytic uremic syndrome that triggers an "out of control" immune response.
A drug that treats the condition is in clinical trials and the scientists believe it may be possible to adapt it to treat pre-eclampsia.
"This study identifies the first genetic risk factors associated with pre-eclampsia in patients with lupus and also validates these risk factors in a population of patients who do not have an autoimmune disease," said study co-author Dr Jane Salmon of the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
Scientists have long suspected that pre-eclampsia is linked to problems with the immune system. Women suffering from lupus and other autoimmune disorders are more likely to have the condition.
As the exact cause of pre-eclampsia is unknown, there are no reliable ways to predict who will suffer from it.
Dr John Atkinson, who led the study, said: "We`re going to need to confirm these links in a larger study but if they are validated it may be possible to develop better ways to identify and treat women at risk."