Pre-eclampsia (pregnancy poisoning) is one of the unsolved riddles of medical research. Each year at Sweden's Lund University Hospital, which averages 3,800 births, 6% of the females who deliver have been affected by pre-eclampsia.

Overweight, diabetic or first-time mothers are the highest risk groups, and heredity is also a factor. Early symptoms include elevated blood pressure, leakage of protein in the urine, which provides general fluid retention with swelling of the face, hands and legs. In a later phase, seizures occur that may be so serious as to cause death of both the mother and child.


Pre-eclampsia will usually appear in the third trimester, and seldom earlier than 20 weeks into pregnancy. Post partum pre-eclampsia can also occur immediately or up to 6-8 weeks after delivery.

"There is really no treatment or cure today. Giving birth is the only solution, regardless whether the child is ready or not," says Stefan Hansson, associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a specialist physician at the Women's Clinic in Lund.

After eight years of research, Hansson and his group at the Bio Medical Center in the mammoth Lund health facility have studied modern molecular techniques in order to identify underlying disease mechanisms of pre-eclampsia. Their findings show that the time when pre-eclampsia occurs is when a mother's genes contact the unborn child's own genes in the placenta.

"Because symptoms disappear after the placenta is removed after birth, the placenta is suspected to be integral to disease development," says Hansson. He notes that research revealed an increased gene and protein expression of an endogenous substance in the placenta with pre-eclampsia.

Researchers compared protein expression in the placenta of healthy and affected females, then profiled a gene and developed a specific gene chip for pre-eclampsia in which they have identified 800 genes. Hansson relates that the Lund group has already patented the marker and is founding their own biotechnology company to develop diagnostics and treatments relating to pre-eclampsia.

Within two years, he believes that an easily taken blood test will be devised to identify risk patients, and he hopes that future research will lead to methods to remove incompatible genetic materials from a mother's blood. Although the cure hasn't yet been discovered, "It looks quite promising today," says Hansson.