Placenta may help predict pregnancy complications as early as first trimester, study finds

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Scientists say the placenta can provide key signals for whether a woman will develop pregnancy complications beginning as early as the first trimester. Using mouse models, the St. John’s College, University of Cambridge team isolated endocrine cells and profiled the placenta to create a “map of hormonal proteins” which was then compared to datasets from studies of the human placenta. 

“We know that the placenta drives many of the changes in a women’s (sic) body during pregnancy and our study found hormonal biomarkers from the placenta could indicate which women would have pregnancy complications,” Dr. Amanda Sferruzzi-Perri, lead author of the study, said in a news release posted to EurekAlert.org. “We found that these biomarkers are present from the first trimester of pregnancy, normally women are only diagnosed with complications during the second or third trimester when disorders may already have had serious consequences for the health of the mother and her developing baby.” 

The placenta, which has been referred to by other researchers as a so-called “black box” of pregnancy, is responsible for providing the fetus with nutrients and oxygen provided by the mother and for removing fetal waste products. 

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The team, which published their research in Nature Communications Biology, looked at proteins made by the placenta and compared them to blood samples from uneventful pregnancies and those with gestational diabetes. 

“We found that around a third of the proteins we identified changed in women during pregnancies with disorders,” Sferruzzi-Perri said. “Using a small study to test if these placental proteins will have some clinical value, we also discovered that abnormal levels of hormones were present in the mother’s blood as early as the first trimester – week 12 of gestation – in women who developed gestational diabetes, a pregnancy complication usually diagnosed at 24-28 weeks.” 

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The team said the findings could have greater implications for expectant women, as up to one in 10 may experience a pregnancy disorder but are usually diagnosed after complications have arisen. 

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“This work provides new hope that a better understanding of the placenta will result in safer, healthier pregnancies for mothers and babies,” Sferruzi-Perri said. “Our team is now working to assess if these discoveries could improve clinical care in future, either through earlier diagnosis or to provide new opportunities to treat these pregnancy complications by targeting the placenta.”