Researchers at the Warren Alpert Medical School have found a new biomarker for preeclampsia, a high blood pressure condition that develops during pregnancy.
The research team — whose findings were published in the journal “Nature Communications” on Sept. 5 — found that the protein cis P-tau was present and elevated in the blood of preeclampsia patients, creating significant implications for the treatment and prevention of the disease. The research was led by Professor of Pathology, Laboratory Medicine and Pediatrics Surendra Sharma and Assistant Professor of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry Sukanta Jash, along with Associate Professor of Pediatrics Shibin Cheng and Postdoctoral Fellow Sayani Banerjee as well as Kun Ping Lu and Xiao Zhen Zhou at Western University in Canada on the study.
“There is a lot of research in preeclampsia, but if you’re looking at the field, they are looking into the branches of the tree rather than the root cause, ” said Jash. “So I tried to find the root, looking into different protein molecules.”
Preeclampsia affects nearly 5-8% of women worldwide, according to a University press release. The disease leads to nearly 70,000 deaths annually for mothers and 500,000 fetus deaths, according to a 2023 study.
Because the root cause had not yet been identified, no one has been able to develop a cure for preeclampsia, Sharma noted in the University press release.
This root, Jash said, turned out to be cis P-tau. Depleting this protein in mice stopped them from developing preeclampsia, according to Jash and Sharma’s study. According to Jash, this means researchers can use antibodies that block and neutralize specific proteins like cis P-tau to prevent preeclampsia.
According to Jash, mild cases of preeclampsia can lead to more serious neurological disorders.
“Even if the mother and baby survive, the fact is that those particular bad proteins still remain inside the woman,” Jash said. In those cases, the protein would survive in the bloodstream and may go to the brain and damage neurons slowly, without any remaining signs of preeclampsia, he added.
For example, Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological condition that affects memory and thinking, is also linked to cis P-tau. This shared protein means that women with preeclampsia may be more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease in the future.
Preventing — rather than simply treating — the disease could lower this likelihood, and this research is a step towards avoiding these diseases, Jash said.
“I think it’s exciting to see a study that is focused on something that is so specific to maternal and female health in general because that is not always a very funded area of research,” said Zoe Creane ’25, a founder of the Women’s Health Advocacy Group, which advocates for research and practices that contribute to women’s health. “Preeclampsia is the leading cause of maternal and fetal mortality around the world, so this is a huge, huge thing that needs to be addressed.” Creane is also a writer for post- Magazine, The Herald’s creative nonfiction publication.
Preeclampsia disproportionately impacts Black women due to both genetic and environmental factors, according to Jash.
“We know that there are genes related to tau, so those genes will cause harm for women if they have a specific gene lineage,” Jash said. Age is also a factor in developing preeclampsia, as young women are much less likely to develop the condition due to varying hormone levels, Jash added.
Jash plans to dive into “deeper molecular levels” to understand where exactly the protein is coming from. “Is it the placental trophoblast cell creating the protein, or the immunological cells feeding the protein and delivering (it), like an Amazon package, to the cells?” Jash asked.