Finding a new way to diagnose gestational diabetes

Late diagnosis of gestational diabetes means that it can be difficult to treat it effectively. Our researchers are studying a group of molecules called progesterone sulfates that could potentially be used to spot the condition early, and thus reduce the risk of complications for both mother and baby.
  • Author's list

    Professor Catherine Williamson, Cyrus Hei Man Fan, Dr Peter Dixon, Dr Alice Mitchell, Dr Caroline Ovadia, Professor Hanns-Ulrich Marschall, Professor Franca Fraternali, Professor Ivano Eberini

    Start date: 2017
    End date: 2021

  • Research centre

  • Research status

    Ongoing projects

Why do we need this research?

Diabetes that develops in pregnancy – known as gestational diabetes – can lead to serious health problems for both mother and baby. It is currently diagnosed in the third trimester, but by this point it can be too late to reverse the effects of the condition. We need better ways of diagnosing gestational diabetes so that treatment can be given as early as possible to reduce the risk of complications.

What’s happening in this project?

Our researchers are interested in a group of molecules called progesterone sulfates, which are pregnancy hormones that can be found in the blood. Research has shown that women with gestational diabetes have lower than normal levels of progesterone sulfates in the third trimester. Our scientists now want to find out if these are also reduced earlier in pregnancy.

To do this, our scientists have been comparing blood samples donated in the first trimester by women who later went on to develop gestational diabetes and those that did not. The team found that women with a high BMI (>35) that went on to be diagnosed with gestational diabetes had lower levels of a progesterone sulfate called PM5S. 

Our scientists are also studying the effects that progesterone sulfates have on the cells in the pancreas – the organ than makes insulin. Pregnancy increases the demand for insulin, and gestational diabetes can occur when the cells that produce insulin cannot keep up with the demand, thus resulting in high blood glucose levels. By carrying out experiments on these insulin-producing cells in the lab, our researchers have shown that high levels of PM5S result in increased insulin production, suggesting that PM5S does indeed contribute to the development of gestational diabetes.

Our researchers will now focus on whether a blood test for PM5S could be used to screen for gestational diabetes early in pregnancy.

What difference will this project make?

It is possible that a simple blood test for PM5S could be used early in pregnancy to help clinicians diagnose gestational diabetes much earlier than is currently possible. This would allow women to receive treatment at an earlier stage of pregnancy, thus reducing the chances of health complications for both mother and baby.

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