THURSDAY, Feb. 17 (HealthDay News) -- Pregnant women who develop a serious condition known as preeclampsia have an overabundance of a gene that helps regulate the body's immune system, researchers have found.

The findings may lead to improved screening and prenatal care for these patients and their babies, said the North Carolina State University researchers.

Preeclampsia is a sudden rise in blood pressure that can result in stroke, seizures or organ failure in the mother. The condition occurs in up to 10 percent of pregnancies and is responsible for about 15 percent of preterm births.

Recent research has focused on preeclampsia as an autoimmune disorder, in which the mother's body regards the placenta as an invader.

In this new study, the researchers compared genetic analyses of placentas from women with preeclampsia and from women with normal pregnancies.

"When we looked at the preeclampsic placentas, we found that several genes associated with a particular autoimmune pathway are 'upregulated' -- basically, that there were more of them in placentas of preeclampsic women than in normal placentas," study author and genomics professor Dr. Jorge Piedrahita said in university news release.

"More specifically, we found the upregulation of a particular enzyme involved in sialic acid modification called SIAE. Sialic acid coats every cell in our body, making it possible for our immune system to distinguish 'self' from 'not-self.' If this process is disrupted, the body can end up attacking itself."

Previous research has linked SIAE to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.

"Prior to this research, we knew that there was an autoimmune cascade effect with preeclampsia, but we didn't know where it originated. Now we know that disregulation of SIAE helps start the cascade. We've been able to fill in the blanks, and hopefully pregnant women and their babies will benefit as a result," Piedrahita said.

The study is published in the February issue of the journal Placenta.

More information

The U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development has more about preeclampsia and eclampsia.