SYDNEY • Taking a common vitamin supplement could significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects worldwide, according to Australian scientists, in what they described as a major breakthrough in pregnancy research.
The study, published in the New England Journal Of Medicine yesterday, found that deficiency in a key molecule among pregnant women stopped embryos and babies' organs from developing correctly in the womb, but could be treated by taking the dietary supplement vitamin B3, or niacin.
"After 12 years of research, our team has discovered this deficiency can be cured and miscarriages and birth defects prevented by taking a common vitamin," said biomedical researcher Sally Dunwoodie at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney. "This has the potential to significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects around the world."
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt hailed the study as a "historic medical breakthrough".
"Today's announcement provides new hope to the one in four pregnant women suffering a miscarriage," he said, referring to Australian data. "With 7.9 million babies around the world being born with birth defects every year, this breakthrough is incredible news."
Through genetic sequencing on families suffering from miscarriages and birth defects, scientists found gene mutations that affect production of the nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) molecule.
Vitamin B3, found in meat and vegetables, is needed to make NAD, so they tested the effect of taking the supplement on developing mice embryos with NAD deficiencies similar to those in human ones.
"Before vitamin B3 was introduced into the (mice) mother's diet, embryos were lost through miscarriage or the offspring were born with severe birth defects," the institute said in a statement.
"After the dietary change, miscarriages and birth defects were completely prevented, with all the offspring born perfectly healthy."
The researchers say the next step is to develop a test to measure NAD levels, to identify women most at risk of having a baby with a birth defect, and then ensure that they get enough vitamin B3. They say current vitamin supplements for pregnant women might not contain sufficient levels.