NSW researchers have made a discovery about miscarriages and birth defects that has been likened to the folic acid breakthrough
After 12 years of research, a team from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute believes it has identified a major cause of miscarriages as well as heart, spinal, kidney and cleft palate problems in newborn babies.
Using a preclinical mouse model, researchers investigated the effect of vitamin B3 on developing embryos.
Led by biomedical researcher Professor Sally Dunwoodie, the team discovered that a deficiency of a vital molecule, known as nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), prevents a baby’s organs from developing correctly in the womb.
This deficiency is particularly harmful during a pregnancy as it cripples an embryo when it is forming.
The researchers also found that a NAD deficiency can be cured using the dietary supplement vitamin B3, also known as niacin.
Vitamin B3 is required to make NAD and is typically found in meats and green vegetables, as well as in Vegemite.
“The ramifications are likely to be huge. This has the potential to significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects around the world, and I do not use those words lightly,” says Professor Dunwoodie.
“Now, after 12 years of research, our team has also discovered that this deficiency can be cured and miscarriages and birth defects prevented by taking a common vitamin,” she says.
Before vitamin B3 was introduced into the mother’s diet, embryos were either lost through miscarriage or the offspring were born with a range of severe birth defects.
However, after the dietary change both the miscarriages and birth defects were completely prevented, with all the offspring born perfectly healthy.
This discovery could be akin to the revolutionary breakthrough made last century that confirmed folic acid supplementation can prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies, say fellow researchers.
“Just like we now use folate to prevent spina bifida, Professor Dunwoodie’s research suggests that it is probably best for women to start taking vitamin B3 very early on, even before they become pregnant,” says Executive Director of the Victor Chang Institute, Professor Robert Graham.
“This will change the way pregnant women are cared for around the world,” he said.
The next step will be to develop a diagnostic test to measure NAD levels, says the Institute, to “enable doctors to identify those women who are at greatest risk of having a baby with a birth defect, and ensure they are getting sufficient vitamin B3.”
The findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.