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Thousands of pregnancies tracked in UK’s biggest study on pre-eclampsia

Up to 3,500 first time mums are due to take part in a UK study led by Addenbrooke’s to understand why some will develop pre-eclampsia and placental complications during pregnancy and whether it effects their long-term health.

WATCH: Patient Gemma Hicks with daughter Maisie, describes early stages of pre-eclampsia


Video transcript

0:00 Everything was going really well.

0:01 I had done a full day of teaching.

0:04 I had walked the dog, and I had just done the food shop.

0:08 And at 35 weeks I felt absolutely fine.

0:11 I was getting ready to just settle down for the evening and have my dinner.

0:15 And then I noticed that suddenly my entire body had just swollen.

0:20 And I didn't recognise myself at all.

0:24 I went straight to the hospital

0:28 because it was just so bizarre out of nowhere with no warning.

0:33 And whilst being sat in the waiting room,

0:37 I started this headache.

0:40 And to call it a headache is an understatement.

0:45 And without scaring people, that's the last thing I want to do, the piercing

0:51 pressure at the front of my head and the sensitivity to lights

0:58 and sound is something I will hopefully never go through again.

1:05 But it's

1:06 with that mixed with the fear of feeling

1:09 like something is taking over your body and you are entirely out of control of it.

The POPPY study (Preconception to pOst-partum study of cardiometabolic health in Primigravid PregnancY) is funded by Wellcome and is being led by a team from Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) and the University of Cambridge.

The study is also due to launch in Glasgow and up to four other research centres in London.

In the first large scale study of its kind in the UK, women will be monitored before, during and after their first pregnancy to see what factors might be influencing the health of their placenta and their long-term cardiovascular risk.

It’s hoped that by understanding this risk, the health of women who develop placental complications can also be improved over their lifetime.

Pregnancy ultrasound check
Picture credit: Mart Production

To prevent pre-eclampsia and other placental conditions we need to know what really causes them and why.

Dr Bernadette Jenner

Dr Bernadette Jenner is a medical registrar in obstetric medicine and clinical pharmacology at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (CUH) and is leading the POPPY study in Cambridge.

She said:

“This study is the first of it’s kind, monitoring thousands of women before they become pregnant for the first time and tracking them through their pregnancies to try and discover why some develop placental conditions and other don’t. We also hope to find out whether or not these conditions trigger longer-term health issues such as heart disease and diabetes.

“Our lack of knowledge and understanding about placental conditions is really poor, especially when you consider how common they are, and the serious impact they can have on women and babies, which at times is life-threatening.

“We have some big gaps in our knowledge and this study hopes to find answers."

WATCH: Dr Bernadette Jenner explain more about the POPPY study


Placental complications

Placental complications affect around 1 in 10 pregnancies and includes:

  • pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure with kidney/liver/brain involvement)
  • gestational hypertension (high blood pressure in pregnancy)
  • fetal growth restriction (baby being small).

These conditions can lead to serious complications for both mother and baby if not monitored or treated.

Women thought to be at high risk of developing pre-eclampsia are advised to take a 75 to 150mg daily dose of aspirin from the twelfth week of pregnancy until birth to reduce the risk of developing this condition.

However, the only way to cure pre-eclampsia if it develops is to deliver the baby, normally around 37 to 38 weeks of pregnancy, although this can be earlier in more severe cases.

What the study hopes to discover

High blood pressure (hypertension), diabetes, autoimmune conditions, age and being obese before pregnancy are just some of the factors likely to increase the risk of pre-eclampsia and placental dysfunction, but it’s unclear exactly why and whether there are other causes.

In addition, women who experience placental complications are twice as likely to develop heart disease and diabetes later in life, compared with women who have a healthy pregnancy.

It’s not clear however whether placental complications cause heart disease and diabetes directly, or whether these conditions happen in women who already have some underlying and/or unknown health issues before pregnancy.

How to take part

The POPPY study is now open at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Two more sites will be open soon at Glasgow Royal Infirmary NHS and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust, with further sites in London to start in the coming months.

Participants must be planning their first pregnancy and live in Glasgow, Cambridge or London where the study is taking place.

Participation will involve monitoring alongside regular pregnancy checks and tests.

For more information about the POPPY study click here: (opens in a new tab)

The POPPY study is a world first and will help us to better understand why common complications of pregnancy adversely affect women’s long term cardiovascular health.

Professor Ian Wilkinson

Professor Ian Wilkinson is leading the POPPY study and is a clinical pharmacologist and Professor of Therapeutics at the University of Cambridge.

He said:

"Unfortunately, many women who suffer from pre-eclampsia, or one of the other placental complications, are not aware of the potential long term risks, and very few of them are actively followed up after birth - despite recommendations by NICE.”  

“Therefore, whilst we await the findings of the POPPY study it is important that women who have experienced one of these complications are seen by a medical professional in the months after delivery to ensure that their blood pressure and other cardiovascular risk factors are checked and treated if necessary."