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The aim of this case–control study at 30–33 weeks, a few days or weeks before the clinical onset of preeclampsia (PE), was to assess whether serum concentrations of cytokines differ between patients who are destined to develop PE and those with uncomplicated pregnancies.A panel of cytokines was measured using Luminex technology at 30–33 weeks' gestation in 39 cases that developed PE at or after 34 weeks and 117 unaffected controls.The serum concentrations of most analysed cytokines were no different in women who developed PE than in controls. The proportions of women with detectable concentrations of MIP-1α and IL-8 were significantly lower in those with PE than in the controls (MIP-1α: 14/39 vs 76/117, P = 0.003; IL-8:13/39 vs 83/117, P < 0.0001). The median maternal serum concentration of IL-1β was significantly lower in the PE cases than in the controls (0.38 pg/mL, range 0.01–0.92, vs 0.60 pg/mL, range 0.02–3.54, P = 0.005).Our findings do not lend support to the hypothesis that systemic inflammation precedes the onset of PE or that cytokines are good markers for such inflammation and certainly the panel of cytokines we examined does not provide useful prediction of subsequent development of PE. © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.