Tulane researchers discover technique to help detect pregnancy disorder

Photoacoustic image of preeclampsia (FOX 8 photo).
Photoacoustic image of preeclampsia (FOX 8 photo).(FOX 8 photo)
Updated: Mar. 21, 2019 at 6:04 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - A new technique could help detect a potentially dangerous complication early on during pregnancy. Researchers at Tulane University believe it could help better understand and treat preeclampsia.

The imaging technique was originally used to detect some forms of cancer, but researchers found another use for it.

"I was interested in seeing whether we could use it as an imaging technique to understand better certain conditions during pregnancy," Carolyn Bayer, Tulane Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering said.

According to the study, preeclampsia accounts for 14 percent of maternal deaths around the world every year, and affects eight percent of pregnancies.

"High blood pressure during pregnancy can lead to a condition called preeclampsia. It's thought that the reason this condition develops is that the placenta is somehow not functioning correctly, and that leads to the high blood pressure in pregnant women," Bayer said.

Bayer said the condition typically starts at the end of the first trimester, but there's no way to detect it that early on.

"If you don't detect that the preeclamptic condition is developing until the end of pregnancy, there aren't many options to treat the condition," Bayer said.

Bayer said she initially used the system to study breast cancer, and thought it was a missed opportunity to not use it for detecting other conditions during pregnancy.

“Ultrasound is used so frequently with obstetrics, it made sense, it was kind of a natural fit that we should also try this imaging technique during pregnancy and development,” Bayer said.

"The source of the signal is actually from the interaction of the light with the tissue," Bayer said as she described a photoacoustic image.

Bayer said there's no clear treatment for the disease, but hopes this new tool will help in finding one.

"We're hoping that we can use this imaging technique both to understand how the preeclampsia develops, to understand how treatment impacts the development of preeclampsia," Bayer said.

Bayer said the next step is to adapt the system so it can be used on patients.

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