Study: Immune system’s changes with preeclampsia

Doctors don’t know what triggers the condition, which causes 70,000 maternal and 500,00 fetal deaths each year globally.

Media Contact: Written by Barbara Clements, 253-740-5043,

A UW Medicine OB-GYN has received a Doris Duke Foundation grant to study preeclampsia, a disorder of pregnancy that is not well understood by clinicians despite many decades of research. The condition causes 70,000 maternal deaths and 500,000 fetal deaths worldwide each year.

Dr. Stephen McCartney will study how the immune system functions during normal pregnancies and those that involve preeclampsia, a hypertensive disorder that occurs during pregnancy or the postpartum period.

He will focus on the activity of innate lymphoid cells, which sense the nutrients and inflammatory signals on mucosal surfaces in the body, such as the gut and lungs.

“These cells respond to inflammatory and metabolic stimuli, but their function during pregnancy is unknown,” he said. “In other tissues, they help activate or turn off immune responses. It’s like a thermostat, telling the body to turn inflammation on or off.”

McCartney is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Washington School of Medicine. The $450,000 grant will fund his research over the next three years.

Currently, no pregnancy screening tests can predict the onset of preeclampsia, nor is there a known way to fully prevent the condition. The standard of care is to treat the pregnant woman after preeclampsia is diagnosed — an insufficient and costly approach. The study of immune cells may give clinicians a path for getting ahead of the condition, McCartney said.

Preeclampsia usually starts after 20 weeks of pregnancy. It can lead to seizure, stroke, preterm birth or even death for the mother and/or fetus. Risk factors for preeclampsia include first pregnancy, a history of preeclampsia, a history of hypertension and chronic kidney disease.

In addition to causing high blood pressure, the condition can damage the kidneys and liver, among other structures. Preeclampsia and associated complications are serious health problems for women around the world, causing 10 to 15% of all maternal deaths worldwide. In the United States, it affects 5 to 8% of pregnancies and in most cases leads to preterm birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The Doris Duke Foundation’s medical research program aims to advance the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of human disease by strengthening and supporting clinical research and physician scientists.

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