Can this diabetes drug treat preeclampsia?

"If metformin proves to decrease the burden of preeclampsia, it could save the lives of many mothers and babies globally," says Stephen Tong. (Credit: "pregnant" via Shutterstock)

Scientists have discovered a new treatment for preeclampsia—a major complication of pregnancy that can threaten the lives of both mother and baby.

New research in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology finds that the common diabetes management drug metformin has the potential to treat preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia affects 3 to 8 percent of pregnancies and is responsible for the death of 60,000 mothers—and many more babies—every year around the world.

In preeclampsia, disease-causing molecules (sFlt-1 and soluble endoglin) are released from the diseased placenta into the mother’s bloodstream. These molecules circulate widely and damage the mother’s blood vessels. This blood vessel injury leads to major damage to many of her vital organs: liver, kidneys, brain (causing fits), lungs, and blood clotting system.

Sadly, there is no treatment other than to deliver the baby. When preeclampsia strikes at a preterm gestational age (less than 37 weeks gestation), doctors may be forced to deliver the baby early to save the mother. Prematurity puts babies at risk of death, disability, and cerebral palsy.

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Metformin is a tablet that is widely used to treat diabetes and is considered safe in pregnancy.

In laboratory studies, researchers were surprised to find metformin decreases the release of toxins from the placenta. Metformin also appears to heal injured blood vessels.

Study leader Fiona Brownfoot of the University of Melbourne says clinical trials should now be done to see whether metformin could be used to treat women with preeclampsia.

“It could even be given to women at high risk of developing preeclampsia to see whether it can prevent it from happening in the first place,” says Brownfoot, who is based at the Mercy Hospital for Women.

Professor Stephen Tong, senior author and head of the Translational Obstetrics Group at Mercy Hospital notes that there is no reason why trials cannot begin very soon, given metformin’s safety during pregnancy.

“If metformin proves to decrease the burden of preeclampsia, it could save the lives of many mothers and babies globally,” says Tong.

The National Health and Medical Research Council, the University of Melbourne, the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and AVANT medical insurance supported the work.

Source: University of Melbourne