Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine researchers have discovered that epigenetic-based changes in the gene expression of a key enzyme may contribute to high blood pressure and increase susceptibility to forming blood clots in pregnant women with preeclampsia. These findings could provide clues to the best treatment approaches for high blood pressure and the formation of blood clots that can block blood flow to a pregnant woman’s internal organs and lead to organ failure. Researchers have been working to determine the root cause of preeclampsia on the molecular level and have now determined that epigenetic mechanisms may be at play. Epigenetics refers to changes in gene expression that are mediated through mechanisms other than changes in the DNA sequence. In a study published online on April 9, 2012 in Hypertension, a journal of the American Heart Association, the VCU team reported that thromboxane synthase – an important inflammatory enzyme – is increased in the blood vessels of expectant mothers with preeclampsia. The thromboxane synthase gene codes for this enzyme, which is involved in several processes, including cardiovascular disease and stroke. This enzyme results in the synthesis of thromboxane, which increases blood pressure and causes blood clots. “The present work is unique because it opens up a new concept as to the cause and subsequent consequences of preeclampsia relating to epigenetics,” said corresponding author Scott W. Walsh, Ph.D., professor in the VCU Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. “It is the first study to show that epigenetic alterations in the blood vessels of the mother are related to preeclampsia.” According to Dr. Walsh, one of the main epigenetic mechanisms is methylation of the DNA, which controls the expression of genes.
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