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Jane Gardner
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Scientists have discovered a new treatment for preeclampsia, a major complication of pregnancy that can threaten the life of both the mother and baby.

The Translational Obstetrics Group at Mercy Hospital for Women and the University of Melbourne have found common diabetes management drug metformin has the potential to treat preeclampsia.

They findings have been published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Preeclampsia affects three to eight per cent of pregnancies and is responsible for the death of 60,000 mothers globally, and far greater numbers of babies, every year.

In preeclampsia, an disease-causing molecules (sFlt-1 and soluble endoglin) are released from the diseased placenta into the mother’s bloodstream. These molecules circulate widely and damage the mother’s blood vessels. This blood vessel injury leads to major damage to many of her vital organs: liver, kidneys, brain (causing fits), lungs and blood clotting system.

Sadly, there is no treatment other than to deliver the baby. When preeclampsia strikes at a preterm gestational age (less than 37 weeks gestation), doctors may be forced to deliver the baby early to save the mother. Prematurity puts babies at risk of death, disability and cerebral palsy.

Metformin is a tablet that is widely used to treat diabetes and is considered safe in pregnancy.

In pioneering laboratory studies, researchers at the University of Melbourne were surprised to find metformin decreases the release of toxins from the placenta. Metformin also appears to heal injured blood vessels.

The University of Melbourne’s Dr Fiona Brownfoot, based at the Mercy Hospital, led the study.

She said clinical trials should now be done to see whether metformin could be used to treat women with preeclampsia.

“It could even be given to women at high risk of developing preeclampsia to see whether it can prevent it from happening in the first place,” Dr Brownfoot said.

University of Melbourne Professor Stephen Tong, senior author and head of the Translational Obstetrics Group noted that, given metformin is safe in pregnancy; there is no reason why trials cannot commence very soon.

“If metformin proves to decrease the burden of preeclampsia, it could save the lives of many mothers and babies globally,” Prof Tong said.

This work was funded by The National Health and Medical Research Council, the University of Melbourne, The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and AVANT medical Insurance. The team also collaborated with Biosciences at The University of Melbourne, and Universidad de Los Andes, Santiago, Chile.