Australian scientists have made a world first breakthrough in pregnancy research that is expected to save thousands of lives by preventing miscarriages and multiple types of birth defects.
Every year 7.9 million babies are born with a birth defect worldwide and one in four pregnant women suffer a miscarriage in Australia. In the vast majority of cases the cause of these problems has remained a mystery. Until now.
The research team at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney has found a remarkably simple cure — a common dietary supplement that contains niacin, one of key elements of Vegemite.
The historic discovery, believed to be among Australia’s greatest ever medical achievements, is expected to forever change the way pregnant women are cared for around the globe.
Professor Sally Dunwoodie from the Victor Chang Institute has identified a major cause of miscarriages as well as heart, spinal, kidney and cleft palate problems in newborn babies.
The landmark study found that a deficiency in a vital molecule, known as NAD, prevents a baby’s organs from developing correctly in the womb.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is one of the most important molecules in all living cells. NAD synthesis is essential for energy production, DNA repair and cell communication. Environmental and genetic factors can disrupt its production, which causes a NAD deficiency.
World first research at the Victor Chang Institute has found that this deficiency is particularly harmful during a pregnancy as it cripples an embryo when it is forming.
“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,” Professor Dunwoodie revealed.
At the heart of the paramount discovery is the dietary supplement vitamin B3, also known as niacin. Scientists at the Victor Chang Institute have discovered simply boosting levels of this nutrient during pregnancy can prevent miscarriages and birth defects.
Vitamin B3 is required to make NAD and is typically found in meats and green vegetables as well as vegemite. However, a recent study found that despite taking vitamin supplements at least a third of pregnant women have low levels of vitamin B3 in their first trimester, which is the critical time in organ development. By the third trimester, vitamin B3 levels were low in 60% of pregnant women. This indicates pregnant women may require more vitamin B3 than is currently available in most vitamin supplements.
Using a preclinical model, scientists at the Victor Chang Institute investigated the effect of vitamin B3 on developing embryos. The results were astounding.
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. After the dietary change, both the miscarriages and birth defects were completely prevented, with all the offspring born perfectly healthy.
This discovery is akin to the revolutionary breakthrough made last century that confirmed folic acid supplementation can prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies. As a result, consumption of folic acid has been adopted by expectant mothers worldwide, and the addition of folate to our food supply has led to a 70% decrease in the number of babies born with neural tube defects.
According to the Executive Director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Professor Robert Graham, the implications are profound.
“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. This will change the way pregnant women are cared for around the world,” said Professor Graham.
“We believe that this breakthrough will be one of our country’s greatest medical discoveries. It’s extremely rare to discover the problem and provide a preventive solution at the same time. It’s actually a double breakthrough,” said Professor Graham.
The next step will be to develop a diagnostic test to measure NAD levels. This will 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.