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White blood cell treatment could prevent leading cause of foetal death

Pre-eclampsia is a condition in some pregnant women that results in poor maternal blood vessel development in the placenta, leading to poor foetal growth. According to the World Health Organization, it is one of the leading causes of maternal and foetal morbidity and mortality in both the developed and developing world, occurring in 2-8 per cent of all pregnancies.

The study, funded by the Wellcome Trust and British Heart Foundation and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked specifically at neutrophils – short-lived white blood cells that act as the first line of defence in infections – and discovered a new role for them in maintaining a healthy pregnancy.

Credit: Bridget Colla

The researchers studied and compared the blood from healthy and pre-eclamptic pregnant women. In the healthy women’s blood, they saw that neutrophils interacted with T-cells – another type of white blood cell essential for the immune system. In contrast with the healthy pregnancies, the neutrophils failed to interact with the T-cells in the blood from pre-eclamptic women.

The authors suggest that there are signs that, in healthy pregnancies, neutrophils play a role in helping the T-cells to promote blood vessel growth and give rise to normal placental development, suggesting that this could be a potential therapeutic target for pregnancy complications.

In tests outside of the human body, the team treated the neutrophils from pre-eclamptic women with pregnancy hormones progesterone and estriol, and found that they were able to begin normal interactions with their T-cells.

Further tests in pregnant mice with pre-eclampsia found that if neutrophils underwent the same hormone treatment, and were re-infused into the mouse, placental development began to return to normal.

Study author Dr Suchita Nadkarni from QMUL’s William Harvey Research Institute said: “Although we’re a long way off and need to confirm these results in a much larger cohort of patients, this could eventually form part of therapy for pregnancy complications. If we could replicate in humans what we’ve done in mice, and re-introduce the treated neutrophils back into their blood, we may see normal placental development in pregnant women diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.

“In the meantime, however, these results give us a much better insight into how the maternal immune system works during pregnancy, and why in some cases it might not work and lead to complications.”

Dr Shannon Amoils, Senior Research Advisor at the BHF, which helped fund the research, said: “Pre-eclampsia affects up to six per cent of pregnant women in the UK and can have serious complications for both mum and baby. This promising development increases our understanding of the condition but further work is needed to investigate whether these immune cells could form the basis of a treatment for pre-eclampsia and other pregnancy related conditions.”

Source: Queen Mary University of London