Australian scientists have discovered a common drug to treat reflux and indigestion could be used to prevent the dangerous pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia.
By
24 Jan 2017 - 8:19 PM  UPDATED 24 Jan 2017 - 8:52 PM

The pregnancy condition pre-eclampsia affects around 60,000 women worldwide each year and has no cure other than delivery.

A group of international researchers, including a team from Melbourne's Mercy Hospital for Women, are working on changing that, and have had a breakthrough with a drug used to treat gastric reflux and indigestion: Esomeprazole 

Mercy Hospital's Dr Natalie Hannan said the astonishing discovery has the power to save thousands of lives.

"The drug is able to block the two key toxins of pre-eclampsia, it basically stops their production completely from the pre-eclamptic placenta. We get some a little amount still produced but what we can show is that the vessels exposed to these drugs are protected."

Professor Stephen Tong, a member of the research team, said the discovery was made when researchers looked into potential benefits of medications that are already safe to take during pregnancy. 

"Even though the information is given out during pregnancy, most women don't think it will happen to them."

"It does look too good to be true. We could immediately see the potential for it and so worked hard over the last four years to build the case for a clinical trial," he said.

Pre-eclampsia often has no early warning signs, and is usually detected during antenatal check ups with the combination of a rising blood pressure and protein in the urine. 

Late stage symptoms may include swelling, particularly in the face, severe headaches, blurred vision and vomiting.

Alison Campbell of Australian Action on Pre-eclampsia said information is distributed to pregnant women about the condition.

"Even though the information is given out during pregnancy, most women don't think it will happen to them and then are quite surprised when things don't go as thought." 

Pre-eclampsia affects up to 10 per cent of pregnancies, making it one of the most common pregnancy complications. 

Women who've suffered it once, can find that it repeats in subsequent pregnancies.

Ms Campbell said this medical break will be a welcome relief to many.

"Pre-eclampsia is a bit of an umbrella term for something that develops along a number of different pathways, but even if a large subset of women developing pre-eclampsia could take this medication and have a term baby, that would be fantastic."

Clinical trials are underway in South Africa, where the prevalence of pre-eclampsia is relatively high compared to the rest of the world.

Initial results from that study are expected towards the end of this year.

'Taken too soon'

Jessica Yolland keeps with her a picture of the tiny pink feet of her precious baby girl who never took a breath.

Diagnosed with pre-eclampsia at 24 weeks, Ms Yolland was sent home from the doctors with medication.

But a few days later her face swelled, her blood pressure peaked and she stopped feeling movement from her baby.

"I'm not going to let pre-eclampsia knock me down again. My goal with my next pregnancy is to reach 32 weeks, anything over 30 would be fantastic."

Rushed to hospital, doctors then confirmed baby Hailey had died.

"I was in shock I felt like someone had robbed me, for my daughter who I hadn't even met yet she was taken too soon," she said.

Her grief over the loss of baby Hailey compounded when months later she discovered she was pregnant again, and once again she was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.

"It really hit me at about the 25-week mark. My nerves were all over the place and I was scared and angry."

At 29 weeks gestation, she delivered a small but health baby boy she named Blake.

The scientific breakthrough offers hope to mothers like Ms Yolland who is hoping to have more children.

"I'm not going to let pre-eclampsia knock me down again. My goal with my next pregnancy is to reach 32 weeks, anything over 30 would be fantastic."