Test detects baby’s proteins in mother’s blood

Scientists can detect tiny amounts of proteins passed between a pregnant mother and her unborn baby, which may help them to learn more about pregnancy.
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Image credit: Maria Pernemalm (CC BY 4.0)

Blood cells travel through the blood vessels in a soupy mixture of proteins called plasma. Most of these proteins are plasma-specific, yet small amounts of proteins can leak into the plasma from other body parts and may provide hints about what is going on elsewhere in the body. This could allow doctors to use plasma samples to assess health or detect disease. But so far developing methods to detect these leaked proteins has proved difficult.

Plasma passing through the placenta can transfer proteins between a pregnant woman and her baby. Learning more about these protein exchanges may help scientists understand how the mother and baby adapt to each other and what triggers child birth. But, so far, they have been hard to study. Using DNA to help trace the origins of proteins found in mother or baby could make it easier.

Now, Pernemalm et al. have used DNA sequencing in combination with protein analysis to identify proteins passed between two pregnant mothers and their babies. Comparing the genetic sequences of each mother and child made it possible to trace the origin of the proteins. For example, if a mother had a version of the protein that matched genes the child inherited from its father, they knew it passed from the baby to the mother. This approach found 24 proteins in plasma from two pregnant mothers that had likely passed through the placenta during pregnancy. Pernemalm et al. also analyzed the plasma of 30 healthy individuals and confirmed that it contained several proteins that had likely leaked from other organs, including the lungs and pancreas.

Monitoring protein transfer between pregnant mother and baby may help scientists identify what triggers normal or premature deliveries. One advantage of the technique developed Pernemalm et al. is that it can analyze plasma proteins from large numbers of people, which could enable larger studies. More refinement of the technique may also allow scientists to identify leaked proteins in the plasma that provide an early warning of cancer or other diseases.