UVA scientists are researching how to catch deadly preeclampsia early
Black women are more than twice as likely to die in childbirth than white women in Virginia.
The Commonwealth's maternal mortality rate was rising even before it spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And federal data reveals that a pregnant person’s race is the most important factor in their birth outcome.
Racially disparate pregnancy outcomes are linked in part to a condition called preeclampsia.
It causes high blood pressure and swelling, and if untreated can cause organ failure and severe bleeding. Preeclampsia can occur during or after pregnancy, and it kills 70,000 women per year worldwide.
A new study by University of Virginia researchers looks at ways to detect preeclampsia risk before it turns deadly.
“There is no cure for preeclampsia. So, the goal is to prevent it, and if it arises, to try to manage as best you can,” said Dr. Charles Chalfant, professor of medicine at UVA, who headed the study.
Researchers focused on lipids — fats in the body that are thought to be connected to preeclampsia. Chalfant said some earlier studies showed lipid dysregulation in some women who later developed preeclampsia.
They even saw these warning signs in women who didn’t have any of the common preeclampsia risk factors — such as hypertension or diabetes.
Chalfant said that catching those signs could help doctors diagnose preeclampsia earlier in those seemingly healthy patients.
“One of those healthy individuals that seems completely normal, what we found may actually help them, or help the clinician to say, ‘Oh, I need to monitor them more closely because they're at risk,’” Chalfant said.
The only current treatment for preeclampsia is low-dose aspirin. It’s usually only prescribed to those with identified risk factors, and only works to prevent preeclampsia about 50% of the time.
Black moms are 60% more likely to develop the condition, and are more likely to develop severe cases than white women, according to the Preeclampsia Foundation. Black women also have higher rates of chronic conditions that increase their risk factor, such as obesity, pre-existing high blood pressure or diabetes.
Chalfant said his research corroborates the data on Black maternal mortality and rates of preeclampsia.
A majority of the study’s 57 participants self-identified as Black, he said.
“Most of our findings are very, very relevant to that,” he said. “I hope going forward, as we expand the studies with more samples, hopefully more patients, we'll probably get a better look.”