A landmark Australian study has found that pregnant women who increase their vitamin B3 intake can significantly prevent miscarriages and birth defects.
The breakthrough made at Sydney’s Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute may spare scores of couples across the world the heartbreak of losing an unborn child and the challenges of raising a baby with a birth defect.
“The ramifications are likely to be huge, said lead researcher Sally Dunwoodie. “It has the potential to significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects around the world, and I do not use those words lightly.”
Every year 7.9 million babies are born with a birth defect worldwide, while one in four Australian pregnant women suffers a miscarriage.
In most cases the cause of these problems has remained a mystery.
Using whole exome sequencing technology, researchers looked for gene variants in families that had experienced multiple congenital malformations.
Professor Dunwoodie and her team found that a deficiency in a vital molecule, known as NAD, cripples the growth of an embryo in the womb.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is one of the most important molecules in all living cells. Its synthesis is essential for energy production, DNA repair and cell communication.
Environmental and genetic factors can disrupt its production.
After 12 years of research, Professor Dunwoodie revealed that a NAD deficiency can be cured by taking 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 Vegemite.
In the laboratory, scientists investigated the effect of vitamin B3 on developing mice embryos with the same genetic mutations as the study participants.
Before the vitamin 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.
After the dietary change, both there were no miscarriages and birth defects, with all offspring born healthy.
The findings are published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.
The head of the Victor Chang Institute, Professor Bob Graham, said the discovery could potentially help millions of women around the world.
“What’s exciting for me is that we may be able to help people who have children who have developmental defects or who have had miscarriages,” he said.
Professor Graham said the “profound” discovery was akin to the breakthrough made last century that confirmed folic acid supplementation can prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies.
“This will change the way pregnant women are cared for around the world,” he said.
In the study, the team proved birth defects and miscarriages could be overcome by taking vitamin B3.
“We gave pregnant mice with the NAD gene knocked out a regular dose of vitamin B3 and we found it prevented miscarriages and birth defects, over-riding the genetic block,” Professor Dunwoodie said.
The ‘amazing future’ for babies and their families
In practice, it’s hoped the research will help prevent problems in children like eight-year-old Memphis Jackson.
Like any child his age he enjoys playing computer games and kicking a ball with his brother Cayliss. But he’s had to endure much more than most children.
He was born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, where the left side of the heart can’t adequately supply blood because the lower left chamber is too small and the left hand side valves don’t work properly.
His dad, Craig Jackson, said Memphis’s diagnosis came as a huge shock for the family.
“As first-time parents, only young, we were extremely taken aback, so it was a very confronting thing to deal with,” he said.
While Memphis is well now, he may need a heart transplant when he is older.
Mr Jackson likens it to having a little Toyota Corolla engine in a big Landcruiser.
Memphis’s mother Tashan said being able to prevent heart defects like her son’s would be amazing.
“Knowing that this breakthrough could mean that no babies are born with heart defects in the future, it just makes our hearts sing,” she said.
“You can’t put into words how amazing that is for the future of babies.”
Vitamin B3 and pregnant women?
Studies from the United States have shown up to a third of women have low levels of NAD in their blood and aren’t getting enough B3 vitamin in their pregnancy supplements.
Scientists say women should take the recommended daily amount of B3 for pregnancy, which is 18 milligrams per day.
But Professor Dunwoodie said women who have problems absorbing nutrients, including those with diabetes, a high body-mass index or inflammatory bowel disease, may need a larger amount.
She said researchers would now start working on a test to measure a woman’s NAD levels.
“The goal is to have a quick and easy test that could be done at the same time as a pregnancy test, either in urine or blood,” she said.
The breakthrough was made possible by a grant from the National Health and Medical Research Council and philanthropic donations to the Victor Chang Institute, including the Chain Reaction Foundation, Key Foundation and the NSW Office of Health and Medical Research.
– With AAP, ABC