AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF)– We’re looking today at a potentially dangerous pregnancy complication characterized by high blood pressure… preeclampsia.

It usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy in a woman whose blood pressure had been normal… and can lead to serious complications for both mother and baby.

To this point, doctors have known that women with preeclampsia experience an increase in the production of leptin — but the consequences have been unknown.

But now, scientists tight here at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University are looking at the impact of that increase … and how it affects the restricted growth of the baby.

Dr. Jessica Faulkner is a vascular physiologist at MCG and Dr. James Maher is Chief of Maternal/Fetal Medicine. Maher says preeclampsia is one of the leading causes for moms to die as a result of pregnancy.

“Worldwide we lose probably 75,000 moms a year. About a half a million babies die from it. There’s several different varieties of preeclampsia. The early onset preeclampsia appears to be most closely linked with placental dysfunction. And then later onset preeclampsia is not as tightly linked to the vascular effects that we see early in pregnancy.”

Dr. Maher says there’s no kind of screening, but there are indications of which patients he needs to watch more closely for preeclampsia.

“There are a lot of things we can look at in the mom’s history that will give us an indication that they’re an increased risk. But right now there’s no test that we can draw. That’s gonna say this lady’s gonna develop preeclampsia but this one won’t.”

Dr. Faulkner studies the impact of leptin in a pregnancy.

“What we’ve been seeing clinically over the past couple of decades is that these patients are presenting with abnormally high levels of this hormone. So levels that are high, even when the other things that we know cause increases in leptin are not high. So it’s just the preeclampsia itself that seems to be associated with high levels of this hormone… So we became interested in what is the leptin doing in these pre eclamptic patients? Is it having some sort of impact on their cardiovascular system? And so what we developed was basically mimicking these high abnormally high leptin levels in pregnancy and in preeclampsia. And actually saw that in mice we can induce a preeclampsia just by giving high levels of this hormone. So that allows us to kind of, sort of tease out what the hormone is being able to do in these pregnant women. To give them higher risk of these cardiovascular high blood pressure, placental dysfunction, things that we see in preeclampsia.”

Dr. Maher says obesity, and women having babies later, play a role in the rise in the preeclampsia.

“We’ve seen an increase in the total rate of preeclampsia as time has gone on. And as you point out that’s probably due mostly to moms are heavier and moms have tended to delay their childbearing. You know, when my mother was having her children she had five kids by the time she was 25. And you know much more likely in my practice, I’ll see moms in their 30’s or even into their 40’s and the risk of them developing preeclampsia through a combination of effects. But they have a lot more likelihood that they have underlying health problems. High blood pressure, diabetes. Which all feed into a general increase in the risk of preeclampsia that’s seen as moms get older.”

Treatment is limited, but that keeps scientists in the lab searching for answers.

“So kind of building on what Dr. Maher just said, basically we’re kind of limited by what can we give these pregnant women to alleviate their hypertension, to prolong the gestation, make sure that the baby can grow. Because low birth weight is actually a side effect of preeclampsia that can affect the health of the growing fetus. And what can we basically give these women? And we’re very limited because there’s a lot of anti-hypertensive drugs and a lot of various drugs that we can’t give to pregnant women. So we really need new targets. And with this knowledge of leptin pathways and what leptin could be doing to promote high blood pressure, to be promoting low birth weight. We can target things that we know that leptin does. So some of the candidate mechanisms that we’re looking at is leptin’s kind of what we call downstream. What it’s doing in the cell to produce other hormones. And we can target those hormones or leptin itself to actually alleviate that preeclampsia phenotype in the clinic.”