Pregnancy-related disease`s warning sign `identified`

Melbourne: For the first time, scientists claim to have identified a sign which can indicate whether a mother-to-be would develop pre-eclampsia, the most common and severe pregnancy-related disease.

A team at the University of Sydney says its findings may allow the early detection of pre-eclampsia which develops without warning and can do long-term damage to a baby, the `Journal of Reproductive Immunology` reported.

"Pre-eclampsia develops in mothers out of the blue, usually in the last three months of pregnancy, causing high blood pressure, kidney and liver damage and severe blood changes. Delivering the baby as soon as possible is the only way to stop it," said team leader Prof Ralph Nanan.

In pre-eclampsia the mother`s immune system appears to attack the fetus.

"Our study looked at the thymus of the fetus, a structure which sits behind the baby`s breastbone and is known as the `cradle` of an important set of white blood cells called thymus-derived lymphocytes or T cells," Prof Nanan said.

No previous study has looked at the effect of the disease on the fetal organ systems, say the scientists.

"Surprisingly we found the thymus of babies whose mother developed pre-eclampsia was significantly smaller than in babies of healthy pregnant women," he said, adding these changes were obvious in mid-pregnancy, long before the mother developed any signs of pre-eclampsia.

"This is a very interesting finding as the thymus plays a central role in shaping the child`s immune system and protecting it against the development of allergies, autoimmune disease and cancers later in life," Nanan said in a release.

The team is now conducting a prospective study with over 1200 pregnant women to confirm the findings with the long-term prospect of developing a test for pre-eclampsia.