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Release: Dec. 21, 2001

UI researcher receives grant to study preeclampsia

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- Audrey Saftlas, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology in the University of Iowa College of Public Health, has received a four-year, $2.2 million grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) to study risk factors for preeclampsia. Specifically, the study will determine if histocompatibility (the similarity of tissue between different individuals) between a pregnant woman and her fetus increases the risk of preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a condition that complicates about 5 percent of all pregnancies and is characterized by elevated blood pressure, protein in the urine and swelling in the face and hands during the final weeks of pregnancy. Although the exact cause of preeclampsia is unknown, a growing body of research points toward an immune-based origin.

Symptoms of preeclampsia can develop without warning and can progress rapidly to eclampsia, a condition characterized by potentially fatal seizures. Preeclampsia is the leading cause of death among pregnant women. Infants born to mothers with preeclampsia may be extremely small for their age or may be born prematurely, which may place them at risk for a variety of other complications.

With the NICHD grant, Saftlas will conduct a case-control study to determine if women who develop preeclampsia are more likely to share human leukocyte antigens (HLA) with their infants than women who maintain normal blood pressure throughout pregnancy. HLA antigens are proteins on the surface of white blood cells that play an important role in the body's immune response to foreign substances.

"The goal of the study is to determine if histocompatiblility between mother and fetus has a detrimental effect by impairing the ability of the mother's immune system to recognize the fetus and sustain a healthy pregnancy," Saftlas said. "Women in the study will be asked to participate in a 30-minute telephone interview and provide cheek cell samples from themselves and their babies for analysis of histocompatibility."

The study population will include 500 women residing in five Iowa and two Connecticut counties who give birth between April 1, 2002, and March 31, 2004.

The study’s co-investigators are Kathleen Belanger, Ph.D., research scientist; Michael Bracken, Ph.D., professor and head; and Elizabeth Triche, Ph.D., associate research scientist; all of the Yale University Division of Chronic Disease Epidemiology. Other UI researchers include investigators Elizabeth Field, M.D., professor in the UI Department of Internal Medicine Division of Rheumatology; Robert Woolson, Ph.D., professor in the UI Department of Biostatistics; and Jerome Yankowitz, M.D., associate professor in the UI Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. The project is located in the Center for Health Policy and Research, based in the UI College of Public Health.