June 8 (UPI) -- Testing hormone levels in the placenta during the first trimester can help identify women who will develop potentially life-threatening disorders during pregnancy, according to a study published Tuesday by Nature Communications Biology.
About one-third of proteins identified in the placenta, which forms and grows from the fertilized egg and attaches to the wall of the uterus, change in women during pregnancies with disorders such as gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia, the data showed.
The study found that abnormal levels of hormones were present in the mother's blood as early as the first trimester, or week 12 of gestation, in women who developed gestational diabetes, which is usually diagnosed at 24 to 28 weeks gestation.
The proteins that play a key role in the development of placental hormones could be used as "biomarkers," or measurable signs of potential disease, which could lead to earlier diagnosis of complications and allow treatment to begin earlier, researchers said.
"We know that the placenta drives many of the changes in a women's body during pregnancy and our study found hormonal biomarkers from the placenta could indicate which women would have pregnancy complications," study co-author Amanda N. Sferruzzi-Perri said in a statement.
"We found that these biomarkers are present from the first trimester of pregnancy," said Sferruzzi-Perri, a research fellow at St. John's College at the University of Cambridge in England.
Pregnancy disorders such as high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia and eclampsia, the latter of which involve spikes in blood pressure, affect about one in 10 pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When they occur, they can impact the function of the mother's organ systems, which in turn can affect the growth of her baby, Sferruzzi-Perri and her colleagues said.
If the mother's body cannot properly adapt to the growing baby, this can lead to major issues, including fetal growth restriction and fetal over-growth. It also can cause difficult labors for women and lifelong issues for the baby including diabetes, heart issues and obesity.
Normally, women with pregnancy disorders are diagnosed during the second or third trimester, when these complications already may have caused serious consequences for the health of the mother and her developing baby, according to the researchers.
For this study, Sferruzzi-Perri and her colleagues used mouse models to identify proteins made by the placenta and compared them to blood samples from women who had uneventful pregnancies and those who developed gestational diabetes.
The team developed new methods to isolate and study the endocrine cells in the mouse placenta because these cells are responsible for secreting hormones during pregnancy. They also profiled the placenta genetically to identify the hormones that are secreted to create a comprehensive map of proteins in the organ.
Blood samples collected for a study that tracked pregnancy outcomes in women at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, England, showed that the presence of these hormones in the placenta in early pregnancy could enable earlier diagnosis of complications, researchers said.
The placenta forms and grows from the fertilized egg and attaches to the wall of the uterus to allow nutrients and oxygen to flow from mother to baby, while removing fetal waste. Its ability to function properly is vital as it impacts pregnancy outcomes and the lifelong health of mother and child, the researchers said.
"The female body is remarkable and from the moment of conception, a pregnant woman's body needs to change nearly every single organ system so the fetus can develop," Sferruzzi-Perri said.
"This work provides new hope that a better understanding of the placenta will result in safer, healthier pregnancies for mothers and babies," she said.