Clinician-scientist Dr. Isabella Caniggia takes her research personally. Her sister was born with cerebral palsy – related to complications during her mother’s pregnancy known as preeclampsia – and Caniggia has made it her life’s work to unravel the molecular mysteries of this often-devastating condition.

Now, a promising bio-marker discovered by Caniggia and colleagues at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital and The Hospital for Sick Children could point the way to better detection and management of this common maternal condition.

Mount Sinai Hospital has signed a licensing agreement with Inverness Medical Innovations to use the biomarker endoglin to develop diagnostic tools for preeclampsia. The earlier preeclampsia is detected, the better the chances for improved health of both mother and child.

We talked with Dr. Caniggia, Principal Investigator and leading research authority on placental development and preeclampsia at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute of Mount Sinai, about her research:

What exactly is preeclampsia?
Dr. Isabella Caniggia: Preeclampsia is a life-threatening maternal condition that affects five to seven percent of all pregnancies. This disease is characterized by a general maternal inflammatory response likely due to the release of placental factors, which can lead to multiple organ dysfunction. It appears likely that there is a substance or substances from the placenta that may cause endothelial dysfunction in the maternal blood vessels of susceptible women. Symptoms typically begin in the last half of the pregnancy and include high blood pressure and protein in the mother’s urine. The disease can be devastating. Infants may suffer from blindness or cerebral palsy, and mothers and infants are more prone to hypertension, cardiac problems and diabetes. Right now the treatment involves little more than monitoring and bed rest and anti-hypertensive drugs.

How do you see this research helping patients?
IC: This research brings us one step closer to developing a diagnostic test so that physicians don’t rely on symptoms alone to determine if a patient has preeclampsia. Instead, they can diagnose preeclampsia early on and determine which patients’ pregnancies need to be closely monitored and managed to ensure a better outcome for these mothers and babies.

What does this licensing agreement mean for your research?
IC: It’s such an honour to bring research from the bench to the bedside. This licensing agreement with Inverness will help harness our research on the biomarker endoglin. I think that it’s the dream of every scientist to be able to make this kind of a difference.

What are the next steps?
IC: Next we will validate the biomarkers in clinical studies. We’ll aim to better understand the mechanisms and find out what regulates endoglin – and hopefully identify other novel biomarkers that could have significance in diagnosis or treatment.

What motivates you to focus your research on preeclampsia?
IC: My mother had gestational diabetes and experienced preeclampsia when she gave birth to my younger sister. It’s the very reason why my sister was born with cerebral palsy – and so I feel dedicated to helping her by better understanding problems in pregnancy. I want to make a difference as a scientist, and find out what’s at the root of this disease.

Where do you see your research going in the next five years?
IC: I’m very proud to feel that my lab is at the forefront of this research. We will continue to study the mechanisms underlying the cause of preeclampsia and look for molecular signatures of different pregnancy disorders. I hope that we will find out more on the molecular level and then develop therapeutic strategies to help patients.

Linda Quattrin

Linda Quattrin was a newspaper reporter and editor before applying her interest in science as communications director at Robarts Research Institute. A member of the Canadian Science Writers Association, she was responsible for media relations and corporate communications at MaRS. See more…