Kynurenine as a potential treatment for women with pre-eclampsia

Scientists are testing kynurenine in the lab to see if it can be used to treat blood vessel problems that are caused by pre-eclampsia.
  • Authors list

    Dr Stephanie Bosworth-Worton, Dr Mark Wareing, Dr Sue Greenwood, Professor Alexander Heazell, Dr Jenny Myers

Start: September 2016

End: August 2020

Pre-eclampsia causes the deaths of 70,000 mothers and 500,000 babies around the world each year. A woman with pre-eclampsia develops high blood pressure – or hypertension – in pregnancy and also has proteinuria (protein in her urine).

At the moment, the only cure for pre-eclampsia is delivery of the baby. This means babies are often born too soon and are being put at risk of short-term complications and lifelong disabilities. It is vital that we find new treatments for pre-eclampsia so that we can improve outcomes for mothers and their babies.

Blood vessels in placenta not developing properly

It is believed that pre-eclampsia happens because the blood vessels supplying the placenta do not develop properly, meaning it doesn't get enough blood. As well as affecting the baby, this can lead to problems with the mother’s blood vessels and cause her arteries to spasm.

Finding new treatments that alleviate these issues with the mother’s blood vessels could help to improve outcomes for women with pre-eclampsia. 

A molecule that relaxes blood vessels

Kynurenine is a small molecule that is formed naturally when an amino acid called tryptophan is broken down in the body. In the lab, we have shown that kynurenine relaxes blood vessels that are taken from women with normal pregnancies and those with pre-eclampsia, and we now want to find out whether kynurenine or tryptophan could be used to treat other aspects of pre-eclampsia.

We are currently testing whether kynurenine reduces blood pressure in pregnant rats, and if it is safe for their babies.

If our initial experiments are successful, we would like to carry out clinical trials to test whether kynurenine is an effective treatment for women with pre-eclampsia.

By finding new treatments, we hope to reduce the number of women and babies dying as a result of pre-eclampsia, and prevent babies being born too soon.

The devastating effect of stillbirth

Stillbirth is devastating for families. We have been gathering testimony about the terrible effect of stillbirth on parents and wider family to raise awareness and make the case that more must be done to bring down the statistics.

'We sat on the bed laughing and joking, pushing the worry away. The midwife seemed to be away for ages. When she returned we were taken to a scan room to be scanned. As we walked in the room I knew something wasn’t right as there were three people in the room already. I nervously lay on the bed and after a few minutes the doctor turned to me and said, ‘I’m sorry but there’s no heartbeat.’

'Those words still make me feel sick to my stomach. I just remember screaming and screaming. I looked to David who sat with his head in his hands. I eventually managed to stop screaming and sat and cried uncontrollably. How could this have happened?'

Shelley, whose baby Joseph was stillborn at 37 weeks

Join the fight against baby loss

Tommy's funds research across the UK investigating the reasons for miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. We can keep you updated on ways you can support our work. If you would like to join our fight against baby loss and premature birth, click here.