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Alberta researchers develop potential tool to predict metabolic disorders in pregnant women

Click to play video 'Alberta researchers: New technology a ‘milestone’ in detecting gestational diabetes' Alberta researchers: New technology a ‘milestone’ in detecting gestational diabetes
WATCH: A study conducted by three Alberta universities has shown the potential to detect harmful metabolic disorders in pregnant women before they even develop. Eloise Therien spoke with University of Lethbridge researchers to find out more. – Jan 15, 2021

A collaborative effort between several Alberta universities has resulted in a new way to help pregnant women at risk of metabolic disorders.

The metabolic dysfunction in pregnancy study, conducted in partnership between the University of Lethbridge, University of Calgary and University of Alberta, is focused on gestational diabetes mellitus (GDM), a glucose intolerance that develops during pregnancy.

It affects between three and 20 per cent of pregnant women in Canada.

Hannah Scott, a Master’s student at the U of L, says while there are links between certain conditions and GDM, there is no exact known cause.

Read more: Pregnancy during COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges for Canada’s expectant mothers

“Gestational diabetes mellitus is associated with a bunch of pre-existing health conditions, most of which are also associated with metabolic syndrome, including obesity, pre-exiting insulin resistance, hypertension, several things under that umbrella,” explained Scott.

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“In the end, [it’s] associated with a bunch of negative health outcomes for both the mother and baby.”

Negative birth outcomes could include preterm births, C-sections and cardiovascular dysfunction.

To conduct the study, Scott and other researchers used urine samples supplied through the Alberta Pregnancy Outcomes and Nutrition (APrON) study that were taken before the development of GDM in pregnant women.

Read more: Type 2 diabetes may be preventable, but why isn’t Type 1?

“It’s very exciting how we were able to pull together this very collaborative team and also involve the APrON cohort,” said Dr. Gerlinde Metz with the Canadian Centre for Behavioral Neuroscience.

A technology called nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy was then used to analyze the samples and found that there is a way of detecting GDM before it even develops.

“We’re able to look at a bunch of the different molecules in the body that were affected before the development of GDM, as a sort of way to narrow down our map of where we need to find the exact moment of [where] GDM begins,” said Scott.

The new potential diagnostic tool could eventually help health-care professionals take action as soon as possible, intervening with dietary and lifestyle changes.

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Read more: Early periods associated with diabetes in pregnancy, study finds

Currently, they only way to diagnose GDM is through a blood test.

“They’re readily accessible, they’re non-invasive, they can be easily collected in large quantities, and that makes it particularly exciting to use this technology and urine metabolomics for pregnant mothers,” Metz said.

“We don’t need another needle pin and we don’t need to manipulate anything and it’s very low-stress.”

Scott adds this technology doesn’t have to be limited to gestational diabetes mellitus.

“We’ll be able to develop a test that can predict — and ideally, allow us to prevent — disease from ever even happening by attacking the mechanisms underlying the disease before they even have the chance to affect the person,” she said.

Scott adds the current benchmark for such technology to become available in a clinical setting is five to 15 years.