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There has been tremendous progress in making pregnancy for people with lupus safer, but there is still a high risk of complications for many women and no current treatments. Because of the critical need to develop a treatment to improve pregnancy outcomes, the Lupus Foundation of America is pleased to support the IMPACT Study (IMprove Pregnancy in APS with Certolizumab Therapy) through a new three-year grant.

A specific autoantibody (lupus anticoagulant, LAC, a type of antiphospholipid syndrome - APS - a disorder where the immune system mistakenly attacks normal proteins in the blood.), which can be detected in the blood in the first trimester, is linked to a 10-fold increase in risk of complications. Treatments are desperately needed for women around the world living with lupus and APS who are at risk of pre-term birth, poor placental development and preeclampsia. These complications, which can also lead to inadequate nutrition and oxygenation of the developing fetus, can cause 10-20% of pregnant women with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) to deliver at 24-28 weeks. 

If successful, the IMPACT study has the potential to provide a new approach to protecting pregnancies for people with lupus and countless other women at risk for these complications. The treatment being studied is a biologic drug called certolizumab which blocks TNFα, a key inflammatory mediator in inflamed placenta. Certolizumab has the potential to be the first biologic that may help prevent these pregnancy complications, enabling women to deliver healthy, full-term babies.

About the study

Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is an autoimmune disease that predominantly affects women and presents during their childbearing years. Pregnancy in women with SLE is dangerous both for mother and offspring, and, in many cses women with SLE have been  advised not to have children.  Among complications frequently seen in women with lupus are preeclampsia (also known as toxemia of pregnancy), preterm birth, growth restricted fetuses, and pregnancy loss. All of these complications are manifestations of placental failure. 

Preeclampsia, the maternal response to toxic substances produced by a dysfunctional placenta, is characterized by hypertension, kidney damage, and dysfunction of other organs, including seizures and strokes. Severe preeclampsia therefore is an absolute indication for emergent delivery, regardless of the gestational age of the fetus, and is a major cause of maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality. Because there is no other effective treatment for preeclampsia or placental insufficiency, which can also lead to inadequate nutrition and oxygenation of the developing fetus, 10-20% of SLE patients are delivered at 24-28 weeks.  

Such preterm births pose substantial risk for cerebral palsy and neurodevelopmental delay. Restriction of fetal growth may also have long-term effects on cognitive development and an increased risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes in adulthood. Moreover, considering only in- hospital medical costs for the first year of life, the average cost for a premature infant born at 28 weeks is $86,000; at 24 weeks it is more than $200,000. Among survivors, the rate of neurodevelopmental delay and other disabilities is at least 15%. Thus, the long-term financial and medical burden to society is substantial, and the emotional cost to patient and family immeasurable. Treatments designed to avoid these complications are critically needed. 

Project Overview

There is currently no effective treatment for women with these high-risk pregnancies, but previous research in an animal model that mimics the human condition shows that a blockade of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), a pivotal mediator of inflammation, prevents adverse outcomes. Further research conducted through the IMPACT study will determine whether treatment during pregnancy with a TNF-α inhibitor that does not cross the placenta reduces the rate of poor pregnancy outcomes in women with lupus and lupus-like illnesses. This is the first clinical trial of a biologic therapy to prevent pregnancy complications in lupus patients. If successful, it will provide a new approach to protecting pregnancies in such patients and a rationale for trials of TNF-α blockade in non-autoimmune women at high risk for preeclampsia or placental insufficiency, including those with hypertension, diabetes or carrying twins. 

The study will also provide the basis to expand the capacity to predict pregnancy outcomes and identify pathways that go awry by analyzing patterns of activated genes in immune cells in the blood of women with healthy pregnancies and babies, and in those who develop serious complications. 

Research plan

Based on observations of the PROMISSE and favorable results of TNF-α blockade in mouse models, the IMPACT Trial (IMprove Pregnancy in APS with Certolizumab Therapy) research team hypothesized that TNF-α blockade in pregnancy would significantly decrease the rate of fetal death and/or preterm delivery due to PE or PI in women with APS and LAC. They expect that TNF-α blockade will result in a reduction in the devastating and costly complications attributable to preterm births in these challenging high-risk obstetric patients. With the clinical and biomarker risk stratification models and infrastructure created for PROMISSE, the IMPACT researchers have implemented the first trial of a biologic therapy to prevent adverse pregnancy outcomes in high-risk pregnancies in patients with APS with or without SLE. 

  • To determine whether TNF-α blockade added to a regimen of heparin and low dose aspirin during pregnancy reduces the rate of adverse pregnancy outcomes in women with APS5 (prior vascular thrombosis or pregnancy morbidity) and LAC, the researchers are conducting an open label single-stage Phase II trial to evaluate the effect of certolizumab, a TNF-α inhibitor that does not cross the placenta and has been shown to be well tolerated in pregnancy, on reducing the risk of adverse pregnancy outcome in pregnant women with APS and LAC.  The study enrolls patients at 8 weeks’ gestation and follows them every 2 weeks with a phone call and monthly with a study visit through pregnancy, and follow their babies through the first year of life.  
  • To determine whether TNF-α blockade during pregnancy favorably alters angiogenic markers of poor placental vascularization in women with APS and LAC, researchers are obtaining blood specimens from patients in the trial. Given that angiogenic dysregulation at 12-15 weeks gestation was highly predictive of adverse pregnancy outcome in PROMISSE, angiogenic marker levels may provide an early measure of efficacy in this and future trials. 
  • To identify genes that predict poor fetal and/or maternal outcomes and that block TNF-alpha response. The study will analyze blood samples from IMPACT patients.  Identification of genes related to response and lack of response to certolizumab may reveal new targets for treatment of patients with SLE/APS and will also allow the researchers to monitor effectiveness of treatments. 

This proof-of-concept translational clinical trial and the exploration of gene expression signatures in blood that distinguish healthy from complicated pregnancies hold the promise of significant advances in the understanding and treatment of complications in pregnant lupus patients.  Importantly, this work also has implications for the prevention and treatment of complications in women without autoimmune disease who are destined for poor placental development and ensuing preeclampsia and fetal morbidity associated with preterm birth.  A reduction of severe adverse pregnancy outcomes in certolizumab-treated patients would provide a rationale for trials of TNF-α blockade in pregnant women without APS, but at risk for severe preeclampsia, and extend the benefits of measuring biomarkers in early pregnancy to many more patients.

For millions of women around the world affected by lupus and countless others at risk of poor placental development and preeclampsia, treatments to avoid these pregnancy complications are desperately needed.  Dr. Jane Salmon, the study’s lead investigator explains, “have dedicated my life’s work to meet this urgent need, and I am poised at a critical juncture to: complete the first clinical trial of a biologic therapy that promises to prevent these pregnancy complications in high-risk women, enabling them to deliver healthy, full-term babies. This work promises to build a better future in which women with lupus and other high-risk pregnancies can fulfill their dreams of motherhood.  I am deeply grateful for the Lupus Foundation of America’s partnership in advancing this important research.”

About Lead Investigator Jane Salmon, MD

The main investigator of the study is Dr. Jane Salmon, who is the Collette Kean Research Professor at Hospital for Special Surgery.  Dr. Salmon is also a Director of the Lupus and APS Center of Excellence at Hospital for Special Surgery and Co-Director of the Mary Kirkland Center for Lupus Research. She is Professor of Medicine and Professor of Medicine in Obstetrics and Gynecology and Associate Dean, Faculty Affairs at Weill Cornell College of Medicine. 

Dr. Salmon has worked with her Co-PI, Dr. Ware Branch, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Utah and the Medical Director of Women and Newborn Clinical Program for the Urban Central Region of Intermountain Healthcare, on the IMPACT study since 2017, which was previously funded by NIAMS.

For over 20 years, Dr. Salmon’s laboratory has focused on the mechanisms by which placental injury occurs in lupus patients. Dr. Salmon assembled a team of investigators and launched the NIH-funded PROMISSE Study (Predictors of pRegnancy Outcome: bioMarkers In antiphospholipid antibody Syndrome and Systemic lupus Erythematosus) to determine which pregnancies were at highest risk for adverse outcomes and the correlates of poor outcome.  Over the course of 10 years, Dr. Salmon and her colleagues collected data and blood samples every month of pregnancy from 750 women and assessed their clinical status and markers of inflammation in the blood.  Over 20% of pregnancies in patients with SLE resulted in an adverse pregnancy outcome related to abnormal growth and development of the placenta inside the uterus, including 5% with stillbirth or neonatal death. 

The results of the PROMISSE Study provide models for early risk stratification to allow physicians to identify patients at low risk early in pregnancy and reassure them that their pregnancies were likely to be uncomplicated and their babies healthy. Conversely and importantly, they are working to offer patients at highest risk with an experimental therapy to prevent placental dysfunction. 

The IMPACT trial represents the next critically important “bench to bedside” phase of this work– translation of experiments in mice into therapies for patients.  If it is successful, this study will have major implications for enabling women with lupus and others at-risk of poor placental development and preeclampsia to have healthy pregnancies and babies. 

Glossary of Terms

Angiogenic Factors - proteins that circulate in blood, promote proper placenta development, and are required to maintain the health of the mother’s vascular system.

Antiphospholipid Syndrome (APS) - an autoimmune disease caused by antiphospholipid antibodies that provoke blood clots in arteries and veins and pregnancy-related complications such as miscarriage, stillbirth, preterm delivery, and severe preeclampsia.  Over 25% of patients with lupus have antiphospholipid antibodies.

Gene expression profiles, signatures, transcripts, RNAseq - products of activated genes; used to identify pathways associated with initiators (causes) of disease or mechanisms by which diseases cause damage to organs.

Lupus Anticoagulant (LAC) - a type of antiphospholipid antibody associated with pregnancy complications and blood clots.

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, Lupus (SLE) - is a systemic autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue. SLE affects many internal organs leading to damage in the joints, skin, lungs, blood vessels, heart, kidneys, and nervous system.  SLE is a disease more frequent in women (9:1 female:male) with typical onset during the childbearing years (ages 20-40).

Preeclampsia - is a disorder of pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure and kidney dysfunction. Preeclampsia increases the risk of poor outcomes for both the mother and the baby.  It is a major cause of maternal deaths and preterm birth with associated complications of lung disease, blindness and developmental delay. 

Tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) - a protein secreted by activated immune cells that causes inflammation and tissue injury.

Information for Patients: Are you eligible to be in the IMPACT study?

To be eligible to enroll in the IMPACT study you must

  • Be 18 to 40 years of age.
  • Have a diagnosis of APS (which will be verified through your medical record)
  • Be repeatedly positive for LAC (which will be verified through your medical record)
  • Be successfully pregnant but less than 8 weeks gestation

There are also some conditions or medical problems that may exclude you from participating in this study.  A member of the research team will review those with you when you contact them about the study.

If you and your doctor feel you may benefit from this study and you are interested in more information, please contact the below project coordinator for further information about this study:

Marta Guerra
Hospital for Special Surgery, New York
Project Coordinator
(212) 774-7361,

Certolizumab is not actively transported across the placenta and is FDA approved for use in rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and Crohn’s disease. Hundreds of patients with these conditions have used certolizumab throughout pregnancy, without evidence of fetal malformations or adverse pregnancy outcomes.

Certolizumab therapy requires a subcutaneous injection (similar to heparin), every other week, from week 8 to week 28 of pregnancy. This is the period when we believe APS causes damage to your placenta, negatively affecting your pregnancy (your health and that of your baby).

Certolizumab will be provided free of charge to patients who are found to be eligible for and agree to participate in the study.

In September of 2020, the Lupus Foundation of America announced a new three-year grant, funded by the Festa Family Foundation, to directly support the IMPACT study. The Festa Family Foundation supports initiatives that help to improve the lives of people impacted by lupus.

“When my family and I first heard about Dr. Salmon’s study, we knew immediately this was something we wanted to invest in,” said Colleen Festa of the Festa Family Foundation.    “The topic of lupus and pregnancy is near and dear to our family’s heart.  When my husband and I began to think about starting a family, I had questions and concerns about being able to have a successful pregnancy and manage my lupus.  We spent a lot of time talking to my doctors and considering various options. At the time, my doctors acknowledged it could be dangerous, but that they would do their best to monitor me throughout. I remember feeling surprised and discouraged that there wasn’t more information available about lupus and pregnancy. Our miracle baby was ultimately born through surrogacy, but we want more women in the future to feel empowered to make the decision that is right for them based on solid research and facts. While there has been tremendous progress in pregnancy for women with lupus, we feel that Dr. Salmon’s study will provide this much needed information, and we couldn’t be happier to see the Lupus Foundation of America take a big step supporting this critical research in this direction.”

The Lupus Foundation of America thanks the Festa Family Foundation for their generous support of the IMPACT study.

Play Video
WATCH: Dr. Jane Salmon Explains The IMPACT Study

Learn more about the IMPACT Study in this exclusive one-on-one interview with lead investigator Dr. Salmon.