The diabetes drug metformin, which is used to treat people with type 2 diabetes, could have the potential to treat a life-threatening pregnancy complication.
Pre-eclampsia is a condition that occurs when insufficient blood supply to the placenta causes toxins to be released in the bloodstream. It develops after roughly 20 weeks of gestation, causing high blood pressure and possible damage to the kidneys, liver, brain and other organs. Pre-eclampsia affects up to eight per cent of pregnancies and on rare occasions can cause maternal death.
There are currently no drugs or treatments available that can safely reduce the effect of these toxins when released during pregnancy.
A new study from the Translation Obstetrics Group at Mercy Hospital for Women and the University of Melbourne, Australia evaluated if metformin could reduce the effect of two toxins released during pre-eclampsia: sFlt-1 and sENG.
Research has previously shown that metformin could “suffocate” the stem cells of pancreatic cancer, while a 2014 study reported the other benefits of metformin could include extending the lifespan of people with or without diabetes.
Using human tissues and cultured cells, the researchers examined the effects of metformin when the two toxins were released. Metformin not only reduced production of both toxins, but it also appeared to heal injured blood vessels.
The release of these toxins damages endothelial cells – this can result in a complication called endothelial dysfunction, which can be caused by diabetes and hypertension – but metformin “improved features of endothelial dysfunction relevant to pre-eclampsia,” according to the researchers.
Senior author Professor Stephen Tong, Translational Obstetrics Group, added: “If metformin proves to decrease the burden of pre-eclampsia, it could save the lives of many mothers and babies globally.”

The researchers are now reviewing clinical trials involving pregnant women taking metformin to assess if the drug can be effective in preventing pre-eclampsia and other pregnancy complications.
The findings were reported in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

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