Researchers Are Discovering How to Predict – and Maybe Treat — Pregnancy Complications Early On.
Katie Love wishes there was some way she could have been prepared. But there was no way to know, early in 2020, that her pregnancy would lead to terrifyingly high blood pressure and multiple hospital visits, ending in induced labor and a 56-hour-long, “nightmare” delivery at 37 weeks. Love, a social media strategist in Pittsburgh, had preeclampsia, a poorly understood and potentially deadly pregnancy complication that affects 1 in 25 pregnant women in the United States. But there was no blood test, no easy diagnostic marker to warn Love that this might happen. Even on her first visit to the emergency room, with sky-high blood pressure, doctors could not be certain preeclampsia was the cause.
In fact, the primary but imperfect indicators for preeclampsia — high blood pressure and protein in the urine — haven’t changed in decades. The Preeclampsia Foundation calls a simple, rapid test to predict or diagnose the condition “a key component needed in the fight.”
Another common pregnancy complication is preterm birth, which affects 1 in 10 U.S. pregnancies, but there are few options to predict that might happen, either.
“The best tool that obstetricians have at the moment is still a tape measure and a blood pressure cuff to diagnose whatever’s happening in your pregnancy,” says Fiona Kaper, a vice president at the DNA-sequencing company Illumina in San Diego.
The hunt for such specific biomarkers is now taking off, at Illumina and elsewhere, as scientists probe maternal blood for signs that could herald pregnancy problems. These same molecules offer clues that might lead to more specific treatments. So far, it’s clear that many complications start with the placenta, the temporary organ that transfers nutrients, oxygen and waste between mother and fetus, and that these problems often start well before symptoms arise. Researchers are using the latest stem-cell technology to better understand the causes of complications and test treatments.
Obstetricians aren’t flying completely blind; medical history can point to high or low risk for pregnancy complications. But ultimately, “everybody who’s pregnant is at risk for preeclampsia,” says Sarosh Rana, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at University of Chicago Medicine and an advisor to the Preeclampsia Foundation. And the symptoms of the condition include problems like headache and swollen feet that overlap with those of pregnancy in general, complicating diagnoses.
The “holy grail" would be early, first-trimester biomarkers. If obstetricians and expecting parents could know, in the first few months of pregnancy, that preeclampsia is a risk, a pregnant woman could monitor her blood pressure at home and take-low dose aspirin that might stave it off.
There are a couple more direct tests physicians can turn to, but these are imperfect. For preterm labor, fetal fibronectin makes up a sort of glue that keeps the amniotic sac, which cushions the unborn baby, attached to the uterus. If it’s not present near a woman’s cervix, that’s a good indicator that she’s not in labor, and can be safely sent home, says Lauren Demosthenes, an obstetrician and senior medical director of the digital health company Babyscripts in Washington, D.C. But if fibronectin appears, it might or might not indicate preterm labor.
“What we want is a test that gives us a positive predictive [signal],” says Demosthenes. “I want to know, if I get it, is it really going to predict preterm birth, or is it just going to make us worry more and order more tests?” In fact, the fetal fibronectin test hasn’t been shown to improve pregnancy outcomes, and Demosthenes says it’s fallen out of favor in many clinics.
Similarly, there’s a blood test, based on the ratio of the amounts of two different proteins, that can rule out preeclampsia but not confirm it’s happening. It’s approved in many countries, though not the U.S.; studies are still ongoing. A positive test, which means “maybe preeclampsia,” still leaves doctors and parents-to-be facing excruciating decisions: If the mother’s life is in danger, delivering the baby can save her, but even a few more days in the uterus can promote the baby’s health. In Ireland, where the test is available, it’s not getting much use, says Patricia Maguire, director of the University College Dublin Institute for Discovery.
Maguire has identified proteins released by platelets that indicate pregnancy — the “most expensive pregnancy test in the world,” she jokes. She is now testing those markers in women with suspected preeclampsia.
The “holy grail,” says Maguire, would be early, first-trimester biomarkers. If obstetricians and expecting parents could know, in the first few months of pregnancy, that preeclampsia is a risk, a pregnant woman could monitor her blood pressure at home and take-low dose aspirin that might stave it off. Similarly, if a quick blood test indicated that preterm labor could happen, doctors could take further steps such as measuring the cervix and prescribing progesterone if it’s on the short side.
Biomarkers in Blood
It was fatherhood that drew Stephen Quake, a biophysicist at Stanford University in California, to the study of pregnancy biomarkers. His wife, pregnant with their first child in 2001, had a test called amniocentesis. That involves extracting a sample from within the uterus, using a 3–8-inch-long needle, for genetic testing. The test can identify genetic differences, such as Down syndrome, but also carries risks including miscarriage or infection. In this case, mom and baby were fine (Quake’s daughter is now a college student), but he found the diagnostic danger unacceptable.
Seeking a less invasive test, Quake in 2008 reported that there’s enough fetal DNA in the maternal bloodstream to diagnose Down syndrome and other genetic conditions. “Use of amniocentesis has plunged,” he says.
Then, recalling that his daughter was born three and a half weeks before her due date — and that Quake’s own mom claims he was a month late, which makes him think the due date must have been off — he started researching markers that could accurately assess a fetus’ age and predict the timing of labor. In this case, Quake was interested in RNA, not DNA, because it’s a signal of which genes the fetus’, placenta’s, and mother’s tissues are using to create proteins. Specifically, these are RNAs that have exited the cells that made them. Tissues can use such free RNAs as messages, wrapping them in membranous envelopes to travel the bloodstream to other body parts. Dying cells also release fragments containing RNAs. “A lot of information is in there,” says Kaper.
In a small study of 31 healthy pregnant women, published in 2018, Quake and collaborators discovered nine RNAs that could predict gestational age, which indicates due date, just as well as ultrasound. With another set of 38 women, including 13 who delivered early, the researchers discovered seven RNAs that predicted preterm labor up to two months in advance.
Quake notes that an RNA-based blood test is cheaper and more portable than ultrasound, so it might be useful in the developing world. A company he cofounded, Mirvie, Inc., is now analyzing RNA’s predictive value further, in thousands of diverse women. CEO and cofounder Maneesh Jain says that since preterm labor is so poorly understood, they’re sequencing RNAs that represent about 20,000 genes — essentially all the genes humans have — to find the very best biomarkers. “We don’t know enough about this field to guess what it might be,” he says. “We feel we’ve got to cast the net wide.”
Quake, and Mirvie, are now working on biomarkers for preeclampsia. In a recent preprint study, not yet reviewed by other experts, Quake’s Stanford team reported 18 RNAs that, measured before 16 weeks, correctly predicted preeclampsia 56–100% of the time.
Other researchers are taking a similar tack. Kaper’s team at Illumina was able to classify preeclampsia from bloodstream RNAs with 85 to 89% accuracy, though they didn’t attempt to predict it. And Louise Laurent, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and researcher at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has defined several pairs of microRNAs — pint-sized RNAs that regulate other ones — in second-trimester blood samples that predict preeclampsia later on.
Placentas in a Dish
The RNAs that show up in these studies often come from genes used by the placenta. But they’re only signals that something’s wrong, not necessarily the root cause. “There still is not much known about what really causes major complications of pregnancy,” says Laurent.
The challenge is that placental problems likely occur early on, as the organ forms in the first trimester. For example, if the placenta did a poor job of building blood vessels through the uterine lining, it might cause preeclampsia later as the growing fetus tries to access more and more blood through insufficient vessels, leading to high blood pressure in the mother. “Everyone has kind of suspected that that is probably what goes wrong,” says Mana Parast, a pathologist and researcher at UCSD.
To see how a placenta first faltered, “you want to go back in time,” says Parast. It’s only recently become possible to do something akin to that: She and Laurent take cells from the umbilical cord (which is a genetic match for the placenta) at the end of pregnancy, and turn them into stem cells, which can become any kind of cell. They then nudge those stem cells to make new placenta cells in lab dishes. But when the researchers start with cells from an umbilical cord after preeclampsia, they find the stem cells struggle to even form proper placenta cells, or they develop abnormally. So yes, something seems to go wrong right at the beginning. Now, the team plans to use these cell cultures to study the microRNAs that indicate preeclampsia risk, and to look for medications that might reverse the problems, Parast says.
Biomarkers could lead to treatments. For example, one of the proteins that commercial preeclampsia diagnostic kits test for is called soluble Flt-1. It’s a sort of anti-growth factor, explains Rana, that can cause problems with blood vessels and thus high blood pressure. Getting rid of the extra Flt-1, then, might alleviate symptoms and keep the mother safe, giving the baby more time to develop. Indeed, a small trial that filtered this protein from the blood did lower blood pressure, allowing participants to keep their babies inside for a couple of weeks longer, researchers reported in 2011.
For pregnant women like Love, even advance warning would have been beneficial. Laurent and others envision a first-trimester blood test that would use different kinds of biomolecules — RNAs, proteins, whatever works best — to indicate whether a pregnancy is at low, medium, or high risk for common complications.
“I prefer to be prepared,” says Love, now the mother of a healthy little girl. “I just wouldn’t have been so thrown off by the whole thing.”
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.