November 19, 2018

UMass Medical School researchers find potential therapy for preeclampsia

Photo/Grant Welker
Two UMass Medical School researchers have found, through experiments with pregnant baboons, a potential breakthrough in treating preeclampsia, a disorder that affects pregnant women.

Two researchers at UMass Medical School and collaborating researchers have found a new type of therapy they believe can alleviate the symptoms of preeclampsia, a complication during pregnancy coming with high blood pressure.

The scientists found using small interfering ribonucleic acids in animal research could help treat preeclampsia.

Two researchers at UMass Medical School's RNA Therapeutics Institute, Anastasia Khvorova and Melissa Moore, led the research with Ananath Karumanchi of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Preeclampsia has no cure or adequate treatment options, UMass Medical Center said Monday in announcing the results of the research. The disorder affects at least 5 to 8 percent of all pregnancies, with symptoms including swelling, sudden weight gain, headaches and changes in vision, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. It typically occurs 20 weeks into the pregnancy.

Preeclampsia and other hypertensive pregnancy disorders are a leading cause worldwide of maternal and infant illness and death, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. Conservative estimates say 500,000 infant deaths and 76,000 maternal deaths occur worldwide each year because of preeclampsia, the foundation says.

Khvorova, a professor of ribonecleic acid, or RNA, therapeutics, attributed the potential treatment milestone to advances in small interfering RNAs, or siRNAs. The treatment could allow women with preeclampsia to extend their pregnancy from 24 or 25 weeks to as long as 30 weeks, which can greatly benefit the health of the baby, she said.

The researchers found in tests with pregnant baboons, a single injection or siRNA lowered levels of a protein in the blood that is associated with preeclampsia. The injection normalized the mother's blood pressure.

"Six years ago, this wouldn't have been possible," Khvorova said in UMass' announcement of the results.

Moore, also a professor of RNA therapeutics, began researching preeclampsia 15 years ago after being diagnosed herself and being asked to participate in a study of the disorder.

"As exciting as these results are, it still feels like we're half done," Moore said. "It won't be complete until we can get a therapy to women. Getting pregnant shouldn't be one of the most dangerous things a woman can do."

The researchers next plan to obtain funding for further study before applying for an investigational new drug application from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

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