DEC 20, 2017 02:55 PM PST

Repurposing a Diabetes Drug to Treat Preeclampsia


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A cheap and commonly used diabetes drug may also treat and prevent preeclampsia.

Preeclampsia is a medical condition that’s unique to pregnancy, and arises when the placenta does not receive enough oxygen from the mother. As a result, this organ begins to release toxins into the expectant mother’s bloodstream, which then causes a severe increase in blood pressure and abnormal presence of protein in the urine. This condition affects 5-8% of all pregnancies and is the leading cause of maternal death worldwide.

So far, the only effective treatment for preeclampsia is early delivery of the baby. While this treatment works to lower blood pressure in the expectant mother, there is a significantly increased risk of disability and even death for the baby delivered prematurely.
Researchers at the University of Melbourne and Mercy Hospital for Women in Australia may have found a cheaper, safer solution in the form of metformin, a common drug that’s used to treat diabetes.
During low oxygen levels, the placenta secretes two chemicals, soluble vascular endothelial growth factor receptor 1 (sFlt-1) and soluble endoglin (sENG), into the maternal circulation. Elevated levels of these chemicals damage the endothelial cells that line all the blood vessels in the body. Reducing the levels of these two toxins is thought to be the key to reversing preeclampsia.

Lead by Dr. Fiona Brownfoot and Dr. Stephen Tong, the team treated cells and placental explants with metformin. They reported multiple encouraging results with metformin treatment, with the overall effect being the reduction of the two toxins associated with preeclampsia.

We've found that this medication is able to block the pre-eclampsia disease process at two points. We've found that it's able to reduce the placental secretion of the toxins, it's also able to heal mum's blood vessels. – Dr. Brownfoot, first author of the study.

Metformin is a well-prescribed antidiabetic medication that works by suppressing glucose production in the liver. Additionally, it’s also been purported to have anticancer properties and be effective against polycystic ovarian syndrome. According to Robert Romero, editor-in-chief for Obstetrics of the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, “Metformin seems to be the aspirin of the 21st century, because the drug has been discovered to have unexpected health benefits.”
But while everyone is excited for a safe and cheap alternative to delivery for preeclampsia, the promising lab results need validation in a clinical trial. And because the drug is known to be safe when taken during pregnancy, the researchers hope the clinical trials can start relatively soon.

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at
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