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New link between pre-eclampsia and diet

A chemical compound found in unpasteurised food has been detected in unusually high levels in the red blood cells of pregnant women with the condition pre-eclampsia.

These results are important because they suggest that the compound, 'ergothioneine', is an indicator of pre-eclampsia and may help scientists to understand the cause of the condition, which is currently unknown.

Scientists at the University of Leeds took blood samples from a group of thirty-seven pregnant women and compared the red blood cells from women with pre-eclampsia with the red blood cells from women with no symptoms.

In results published in the journal Reproductive Sciences, chemists found a significantly higher concentration of the ergothioneine - a compound made by fungi - in the red blood cells of the women with pre-eclampsia.

Ergothioneine is already well known to be made by micro-organisms that are commonly found in foods such as unpasteurised dairy products. As it cannot be synthesised by humans it finds its way into human cells exclusively through our diet.

The NHS does not advise against pregnant women eating fungi or foods such as unpasteurised dairy products which contain ergothioneine producing fungi. In fact scientific studies on animals highlight the benefit of ergothioneine.

"These results suggest that a higher level of ergothioneine is an indicator of pre-eclampsia," says Dr Julie Fisher, a chemist at the University of Leeds who lead the research.

"I would not recommend that pregnant women stop eating fungi. However, the high concentration of ergothioneine in the red blood cells of women with pre-eclampsia is a very interesting finding – the more we know about the chemicals involved in the disease the closer we get to understanding what causes it," says Professor James Walker, Professor of Obstetrics at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine (LIMM), and a co-author of the research.

The symptoms of pre-eclampsia include high blood pressure, protein in urine and fluid retention and affects almost 10% of pregnancies after 20 weeks. Left untreated, the condition can cause a range of problems such as growth restriction in babies and even foetal and maternal mortality. There is no known cause of the condition.

"Ergothioneine is known as an antioxidant and antioxidants have been proposed to be helpful in reducing the risk of preeclampsia. It is therefore very interesting that we have found it to be in excess for women with the condition," says Dr Fisher.

The team used a technique which is based on the same science as MRI scans but which operates on fluids taken from the body, to identify chemicals in the red blood cells of pregnant women. The amount of these chemicals was found to depend on whether the women were healthy or whether they were suffering from pre-eclampsia. In previous studies the team found that chemical markers for pre-eclampsia also exist in blood plasma.

The research was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Medical Research Council, UK.

For more information

Dr Julie Fisher is available for interview, Tel: 0113 343 6577, Email:

Or contact the University of Leeds press office on 0113 343 4031 or email

The paper Imidazole-Based Erythrocyte Markers of Oxidative Stress in Preeclampsia-An NMR Investigation is published in the journal Reproductive Sciences and is available to journalists on request.

Notes for editors

1. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise showed the University of Leeds to be the UK's eighth biggest research powerhouse. The University is one of the largest higher education institutions in the UK and a member of the Russell Group of research-intensive universities. The University's vision is to secure a place among the world's top 50 by 2015.

2. The School of Chemistry is highly regarded for its teaching and research excellence both nationally and internationally. In the Research Assessment Exercise 2008 the School was ranked 8th in the country. Our teaching is rated as 'excellent' by the Teaching Quality Assessment. The School has recently benefited from an £8m investment in new research laboratories and another £4m in state-of-the-art teaching laboratories.

3. The Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine (LIMM), is an Institute of the Faculty of Medicine and Health at the University of Leeds. It is located part on the St James's University Hospital site, part at Chapel Allerton and part on the University's central Leeds campus. LIMM is dedicated to research into defining the molecules involved in human diseases and in translational research to convert these studies into novel therapies and new drugs. More about the work of the Institute can be found here:

3. Pre-eclampsia is a pregnancy specific condition, the causes of which are still not fully understood. The condition develops is around 10% of pregnancies and can only be reversed by delivery of the baby. It is the major cause of maternal and foetal mortality in developed countries. Symptoms and signs of the condition include headache, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, visual disturbances, confusion, vomiting. Pre-eclampsia can also lead to seizures (eclampsia) in around 0.2% of pregnancies and can be associated with complications such as coma and maternal death.

5. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK's main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests more than £500 million a year in research and postgraduate training to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and from mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements in everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. For more information visit

Clare Ryan | EurekAlert!
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