April 2, 2019 -- A test that measures levels of placental growth factor (PlGF) in a woman's blood can be used to diagnose cases of pre-eclampsia, a potentially fatal complication of pregnancy, according to a study by U.K. researchers published April 1 in the Lancet.
Pre-eclampsia often begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy and occurs with the onset of high blood pressure and elevated protein levels in the urine. More severe disease can lead to worsened liver function, damage to other vital organs, and even seizures. Globally, some 100 women die of pre-eclampsia per day.
Traditionally, pre-eclampsia has been diagnosed by measuring blood pressure and checking protein levels in the urine. But these methods are imprecise and often subjective, according to senior author Dr. Lucy Chappell, PhD, from King's College London. While PlGF was known to be an indicator of pre-eclampsia, clinicians weren't sure that making the test available would result in better healthcare.
To test the theory, the researchers from King's College enrolled 1,035 women with suspected pre-eclampsia from June 2016 to October 2017 from 11 maternity wards around the U.K. The women were divided into two groups: an experimental group in which PlGF measurements were made available to clinicians and a group in which the measurements were not available.
Having the PlGF data available reduced the average time to pre-eclampsia diagnosis from 4.1 days to 1.9 days, Chappell and colleagues found. In addition, the rate of serious complications prior to birth, such as eclampsia, stroke, and maternal death, fell from 5% to 4%.
There was no difference in several other metrics, such as the rate of complications for the baby, the age at which babies were delivered prematurely, and the rate of admission to the neonatal unit. What's more, PlGF testing did not lead to more unnecessary cases of preterm birth.
In response to the findings, National Health Service (NHS) England announced it would start making the PlGF test more widely available.
"This innovative blood test, as set out in this new study, helps determine the risks of pre-eclampsia in pregnancy, enabling women to be directed to appropriate care or reduce unnecessary worry more quickly," said Dr. Tony Young, national clinical lead for innovation at NHS England, in a statement from King's College London.