An electronic nose that ‘smells’ harmful chemicals in urine could identify pregnant women most at risk of the dangerous condition pre-eclampsia.
The handheld, walkie-talkie-sized device picks out the aroma of certain proteins linked with the condition before symptoms even appear.
Researchers hope that the experimental gadget will help doctors save the lives of both mothers and babies, by allowing them to routinely check women for pre-eclampsia.
Those deemed to be at high risk can then be monitored more closely throughout their pregnancies to minimize the dangers.
Up to one in 20 pregnancies in the UK is affected by pre-eclampsia, which develops when blood vessels in the placenta, that normally provide oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby, do not form properly.
The handheld, walkie-talkie sized device picks out the aroma of certain proteins linked with the condition before symptoms even appear
This can drive up a woman’s blood pressure and reduce the amount of oxygen and nutrients reaching the baby.
The stressed placenta then releases toxins that damage babies’ organs such as the liver, kidneys, lungs, and brain — increasing the risk of them dying in the womb, or being born prematurely. About 1,000 babies and 80 women a year in the UK die from the condition.
Once detected those with pre-eclampsia must be monitored closely — some may be treated with drugs to bring down blood pressure — but giving birth, typically on a planned date by a cesarean section is the only way to ‘cure’ the condition.
The difficulty in diagnosing the condition to implement such measures: in the early stages pre-eclampsia is ‘silent’ — causing no symptoms.
Most cases are currently only picked up through routine blood pressure and urine checks at antenatal appointments from four months on into a pregnancy.
The latter measures levels of proteins such as albumin, made by the liver to keep the blood healthy. Excess levels suggest the protein is ‘leaking’ from the bloodstream because of abnormal blood flow to the placenta.
The electronic nose could detect if pre-eclampsia is likely to be problem weeks or months before current tests can.
Researchers from the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, studied 89 pregnant women and compared those already diagnosed with pre-eclampsia with pregnant women who only had risk factors for it, such as obesity, their age (it’s more common in those in their 40s) or having had it in previous pregnancies.
The women gave regular urine samples which were tested using the £6,000 portable electronic nose, called Cyranose. The gadget has an aerial protruding from the top which has a tiny sensor inside the tip.
The aerial is held a few millimeters above the urine sample for a few seconds to analyze the vapors coming off it and then gives a read-out on protein levels. Using just a few drops of urine, the ‘nose’ was able to detect even slightly raised levels of harmful proteins.
The research, published in the journal Archives of Medical Research, found there were significantly raised levels of proteins in women in the latter stages of pregnancy who’d already been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.
But it also showed that more than a third of the at-risk women already had higher protein levels, even though they were still in the early stages of pregnancy (about 14 weeks) and showing no signs of pre-eclampsia, such as high blood pressure.
Commenting on the device, Professor Ronnie Lamont, a consultant obstetrician and gynecologist at BMI Chiltern Hospital in Buckinghamshire, said: ‘This technology has the potential to save lives — I’ve seen both mothers and babies die from pre-eclampsia.
‘If the electronic nose can detect signs of it as early as 13 or 14 weeks, it means those women could be monitored much more closely.’