SCIENTISTS are close to finding a life-saving "holy grail" test for a pregnancy complication that claims the lives of up to 1,000 babies in Britain every year.
Research suggests low protein levels early in pregnancy indicate mothers-to-be may develop pre-eclampsia, which causes pregnant women to develop high blood pressure, have protein leak from their kidneys into their urine and suffer fluid retention.
The problem is responsible for the deaths of between seven and ten mothers a year, according to the British Heart Foundation (BHF).
Now research by the University of Bristol has shown that measuring levels of the protein, VEGF165b, at 12 weeks of pregnancy may be a "good indicator" of the woman's risk of developing the condition.
The pregnancy-style test could ensure close monitoring, care of vulnerable pregnancies and the early administering of aspirin, which is thought to reduce the chances of developing pre-eclampsia by a sixth.
The tests showed that in normal pregnancies, there was a tenfold increase in VEGF165b by the 12th week, whilst in women who went on to develop pre-eclampsia, VEGF165b had barely increased by this stage.
At full term, there was statistically no significant difference between VEGF165b levels in healthy and pre-eclamptic pregnancies, suggesting that its increase is delayed in women who go on to develop pre-eclampsia.
Any pregnant woman can develop pre-eclampsia, and it occurs in about one in 14 pregnancies.
There is still no known cure for the condition. Symptomless in its early stages, it can develop into eclampsia, producing a rise in blood pressure that can be fatal.
It is hoped the new research, while still at an early stage, will lead to straightforward urine tests being conducted in GP surgeries and hospitals across Britain in a few years.
Karen Partridge, 43, from Bristol, suffered severe pre-eclampsia in her first two pregnancies.
She said: "It was a very scary time. I spent 21 days in hospital during my first pregnancy.
"I had the classic symptoms, protein in my urine and high blood pressure, and I swelled up like the Michelin man, putting on four stone," she said.
"There was no choice but to deliver my first child as quickly as possibly which resulted in a low birth-weight of only 5lb 2oz, and my daughter was tube-fed for ten days."
Professor Jeremy Pearson, at the British Heart Foundation, said: "Developing a test to predict pre-eclampsia is a 'holy grail' in medicine,
that could potentially save many lives."