Breakthrough research started at Auckland University offers new hope of identifying women and babies at risk from a potentially fatal condition.

Pre-eclampsia, a condition which causes sudden hypertension in expectant women, hampers about 5 per cent of first-time pregnancies, affecting eight million women and killing 70,000 worldwide each year.

It causes swelling, soaring blood pressure and, in extreme cases, organ failure. About 1650 of the 55,000 births in New Zealand each year are complicated by the condition.

The only cure is to deliver the baby, meaning a third of affected infants are born premature.

The research, newly published in online journal Proteomics, could help experts develop a test to identify women more likely to develop the condition.

Once identified, they could help prevent it through measures including regular monitoring and aspirin intake to thin the blood and reduce the chance of clotting.

The Scope study, led by Adelaide University professor Robyn North with Auckland University senior researcher Dr Marion Blumenstein, tested proteins in the blood of women at 20 weeks' pregnant.

Started in 2004, it has involved 4000 women in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and Ireland.

The latest findings focused on a group of about 100 Auckland women.

Researchers compared blood tests from those who went on to develop pre-eclampsia and those who had uncomplicated pregnancies.

They discovered a set of markers in the blood that could indicate women's chance of developing pre-eclampsia.

There is currently no test for the condition, and women do not know if they are affected until their blood pressure and blood protein are tested at routine ante-natal visits.

"If we can build a screening test that is underpinned by these findings this could modify the way in which antenatal care is provided to women," said North.

"We may have the potential to prevent pre-eclampsia in first-time mothers. This has great potential to save lives. It's a major breakthrough."

Researchers need to validate their findings with a larger test, something they hope to achieve by the end of next year.

According to the Australasian neonatal intensive care database, 13 per cent of babies born before 32 weeks' gestation (very premature babies) and admitted to neonatal intensive care units were delivered early because the mothers got pre-eclampsia.

Children born at below ideal birth weight may experience a variety of problems through their lives including increased risk of cerebral palsy and developmental delay.

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