Novel approach yields new insights into the causes of pre-eclampsia

Pregnant woman having her blood pressure taken
06 Oct 2010 20:30:48.660
 PA 263/10

An exciting collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge and Nottingham has resulted in new insights into the hypertension that frequently blights pregnancy.

The results, published in the journal Nature [online 6th October], describe the solving of the first step in the principal process that controls blood pressure — the release of the hormone angiotensin from its source protein, angiotensinogen.

Every day, millions of people are treated with drugs which either block the production of angiotensin, (ACE inhibitors), or stop it from taking effect in the body once it is released, (angiotensin receptor blockers). These drugs are crucial for reducing risks to health, by lowering blood pressure and make up nearly six per cent of all prescriptions written in the UK.
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 Study into the causes and, potentially, prevention of this hypertension could help to reduce the burden it places on the NHS. In the past five years, the number of prescriptions of ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers has risen to 13.4 million.

The Cambridge findings unexpectedly revealed a fine-tuning mechanism in angiotensinogen that is responsive to changes in tissue oxygen. The Nottingham contribution has been in showing how this change — from a less active to a more active form — occurs in the human body as well as the test-tube.

Professor Fiona Broughton Pipkin of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Nottingham, has been studying angiotensin in normal and pre-eclamptic pregnancy for 30 years.

Pre-eclampsia — new high blood pressure and kidney problems in pregnancy — affects about one woman in 20 in the UK during pregnancy, and often needs premature delivery. In its most serious form it is one of the two most important causes of maternal death in the UK, and worldwide kills at least 55,000 pregnant women per year. It is one of the ‘oxidative stress’ diseases, and probably originates in the placenta, or afterbirth.

Professor Broughton Pipkin said: “We decided that examining the ratio of the two forms of angiotensinogen in plasma from pre-eclamptic women and those with normal blood pressure would be an excellent test of the hypothesis that this mechanism could contribute to high blood pressure.

“We sent coded samples to Cambridge and were thrilled when we broke the code to find that the results fitted our prediction beautifully. They also fit with the changes in the placenta in pre-eclampsia. This is an absolutely novel approach, which is providing new insights into what goes wrong in pre-eclampsia.

“The collaboration is continuing and expanding, and we hope very much to get rapid grant funding”.

The work was supported by British Heart Foundation (BHF), the Wellcome Trust, the Isaac Newton Trust, and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

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Please note: the Nottingham team who worked on the research is currently at the International Society for the Study of Hypertension in Pregnancy World Congress in Melbourne, Australia, and has limited availability.

Notes to editors: The University of Nottingham, described by The Times as Britain's “only truly global university”, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 39,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

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Email enquiries can be directed to Fiona Broughton Pipkin, Professor of Perinatal Physiology, at

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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