News, Culture & Society

Electronic nose gadget ‘sniffs’ out risk to pregnancy from the dangerous condition pre-eclampsia

An electronic nose that ‘smells’ harmful chemicals in urine could identify pregnant women most at risk of the dangerous condition pre-eclampsia.

The handheld, walkie-talkie sized device picks out the aroma of certain proteins linked with the condition before symptoms even appear.

Researchers hope that the experimental gadget will help doctors save the lives of both mothers and babies, by allowing them to routinely check women for pre-eclampsia.

Those deemed to be at high risk can then be monitored more closely throughout their pregnancies to minimise the dangers.

Up to one in 20 pregnancies in the UK is affected by pre-eclampsia, which develops when blood vessels in the placenta, that normally provide oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby, do not form properly.

The handheld, walkie-talkie sized device picks out the aroma of certain proteins linked with the condition before symptoms even appear

This can drive up a woman’s blood pressure and reduce the amount of oxygen and nutrients reaching the baby.

The stressed placenta then releases toxins that damage babies’ organs such as the liver, kidneys, lungs and brain — increasing the risk of them dying in the womb, or being born prematurely. About 1,000 babies and 80 women a year in the UK die from the condition.

Once detected those with pre-eclampsia must be monitored closely — some may be treated with drugs to bring down blood pressure — but giving birth, typically on a planned date by a caesarean section is the only way to ‘cure’ the condition.

The difficulty is diagnosing the condition to implement such measures: in the early stages pre-eclampsia is ‘silent’ — causing no symptoms.

Most cases are currently only picked up through routine blood pressure and urine checks at antenatal appointments from four months on into a pregnancy.

The latter measures levels of proteins such as albumin, made by the liver to keep blood healthy. Excess levels suggests the protein is ‘leaking’ from the bloodstream because of abnormal blood flow to the placenta.

The electronic nose could detect if pre-eclampsia is likely to be a problem weeks or months before current tests can.

Researchers from the Autonomous University of San Luis Potosi, Mexico, studied 89 pregnant women and compared those already diagnosed with pre-eclampsia with pregnant women who only had risk factors for it, such as obesity, their age (it’s more common in those in their 40s) or having had it in previous pregnancies.

The women gave regular urine samples which were tested using the £6,000 portable electronic nose, called Cyranose. The gadget has an aerial protruding from the top which has a tiny sensor inside the tip.

The aerial is held a few millimetres above the urine sample for a few seconds to analyse the vapours coming off it and then gives a read out on protein levels. Using just a few drops of urine, the ‘nose’ was able to detect even slightly raised levels of harmful proteins.

The research, published in the journal Archives of Medical Research, found there were significantly raised levels of proteins in women in the latter stages of pregnancy who’d already been diagnosed with pre-eclampsia.

But it also showed that more than a third of the at-risk women already had higher protein levels, even though they were still in the early stages of pregnancy (about 14 weeks) and showing no signs of pre-eclampsia, such as high blood pressure.

Commenting on the device, Professor Ronnie Lamont, a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at BMI Chiltern Hospital in Buckinghamshire, said: ‘This technology has the potential to save lives — I’ve seen both mothers and babies die from pre-eclampsia.

‘If the electronic nose can detect signs of it as early as 13 or 14 weeks, it means those women could be monitored much more closely.’

New way to treat bugs resistant to antibiotics

A ‘new’ molecule that sticks to bacteria is being investigated as an alternative to antibiotics.

Infection-causing bacteria rely on a component called lipid II to build their cell walls. Now researchers have shown that when another, recently identified molecule, THCz, binds to lipid II, it stops the cell wall forming and the bacteria replicating.

This has been shown to work against some antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, such as MRSA, and the plan is now to alter the THCz molecules so they penetrate the bacteria and actually kill them, reports the journal PNAS. 

Lack of exercise has again been linked to depression and anxiety.

Researchers analysed data from more than 3,000 people who tracked their activity levels and mental well-being during the pandemic — those who reduced their exercise, as a result of staying inside more were more likely to feel anxious and depressed, according to the journal Frontiers In Psychiatry.

Cutting carbs really can control diabetes

A lower carbohydrate diet can now be recommended for up to six months for patients with type 2 diabetes who are overweight or obese, a review has confirmed.

Low-carb diets are increasingly popular, and the review based on an analysis of nine studies by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (which advises the Government on nutrition and health), found that going lower-carb helped to regulate patients’ blood sugar and cholesterol levels, reports the British Journal of Nutrition.

The researchers advised that people talk to their doctor first before trying lower-carb.

Clock watching

How to harness the power of your body clock. This week: Exercise at 5pm

Doing late afternoon and evening exercise sessions helps build more muscle — important for strength, mobility and balance — than exercising at other times of the day, research suggests.

This is thought to be because the body clock drives fluctuations in levels of steroid hormones, which play a role in muscle building. They also help in protein synthesis, where protein is used for the repair and growth of muscle.

One study found exercising in the evening led to a less rapid decline in the hormones after exercise compared to a morning session.

The study — published in 2009 by the University of Jyväskylä in Finland — found that doing squats, leg presses and strength-building exercises with weights between 5pm and 7pm helped build the quadriceps (muscles that bend and straighten the knee) more quickly than early morning sessions.

Tooth truths 

Tweaks to dental hygiene that could make a difference. This week: Brush your mouth in quarters

Most of us tend to keep moving the brush randomly around our teeth, but this technique may mean we miss some areas, warns Dr Hanna Kinsella, a dentist in St Helens on Merseyside.

‘That’s why I advise patients to imagine their mouth in four sections,’ she explains, ‘and in each section they should clean their teeth on the outside, inside and top for ten seconds each.

‘Each section should take around 30 seconds — so you’ll be brushing for two minutes.’

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