Approximately 5% to 10% of pregnant women worldwide suffer from preeclampsia. This is a condition in which there is a sudden and precipitous rise in the pregnant woman’s blood pressure. In many cases, if the baby isn’t delivered immediately, the mother may die, for the full-blown development of eclampsia can lead to seizures and severe hemorrhaging. This is especially problematic In low-resource countries that do not have access to the sophisticated equipment required to sustain the life of premature infants. In fact, the death toll from this condition worldwide is estimated to be 76,000.
The etiology of this disease remains an enigma. Some of the suggested causes include abnormalities in the immune system’s tolerance of the presence of the fetus, abnormalities in the development of the placenta or dietary factors.
In spite of the apparent mysterious nature of this syndrome, there is a revealing aspect to its presentation. It has recently been shown that preeclampsia is marked by the appearance of misfolded and clumped proteins. Interestingly, among the proteins implicated is amyloid precursor protein – the same protein that is implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. There is to date not enough evidence to unambiguously describe preeclampsia as a “misfolding” disease - It is also possible that the presence of misfolded proteins is a symptom rather than the cause.
Taking these data into account, Dr. Irina Buhimschi, an investigator from Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University, decided to look for a diagnostic tool that would be a better predictor for this condition in pregnant women. In a study involving 600 pregnant women, urine samples were taken and subsequently analyzed for the presence of misfolded proteins. From this study, a simple test was devised using the dye Congo Red. It was found that Congo Red binds to clumped and misfolded proteins producing a distinctive red color. It was shown that this test has an accuracy of 80% or higher in indicating the presence of preeclampsia.
This is a very important discovery especially in regards to its worldwide application, for it is a very inexpensive and simple procedure that has the potential to save countless lives especially in low-resource environments.