Research Highlights

Easy diagnosis of fatal pregnancy disorder 

Published online 3 August 2014

Habib Maroon

A new study promises a simple diagnostic tool for preeclampsia, a little understood pregnancy-specific disorder that kills as many as 75,000 women annually worldwide.

The disorder is the leading cause of preterm delivery in developed countries. Its first warnings are high blood pressure and protein in the urine, and if left unchecked can lead to seizures, stroke, liver failure and ultimately death. 

A research team led by Irina Buhimschi of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Ohio State University and including Charles Glabe of King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia, reports a radical new finding that could change our understanding and diagnosis of preeclampsia1

After profiling the range of proteins being excreted into sufferers’ urine using mass spectrometry, the researchers discovered certain proteins that have a propensity to misfold and aggregate together. So they hypothesized that preeclampsia could be a disease of protein misfolding with similarities to Alzheimer’s or prion diseases. 

In their tests, the scientists used Congo Red, a dye with an affinity for misfolded protein aggregates, and is the basis for the novel diagnostic measure the group is developing. 

It’s simple, cheap, non-invasive and accurate, explains Buhimschi. “It can help identify preeclampsia and predict its severity even before clinical symptoms appear.”

So far the group have identified six different misfolded proteins that are aggregating in preeclampsia, including the Alzheimer’s associated amyloid precursor protein and beta-amyloid. 

“In most protein conformational disorders, there is a particular protein that is the key culprit,” says Buhimschi. Determining that protein in the case of preeclampsia could help develop drugs that target its misassembly. “This would allow us to treat or even prevent preeclampsia symptoms in women who test positive on the Congo Red Dot test.”


Buhimschi, I. et al.. Protein misfolding, congophilia, oligomerization, and defective amyloid processing in preeclampsia. Sci. Transl. Med. (2014).