In 1991, a major medical breakthrough was discovered that could help to prevent death and disability in preborn children. Doctors were able to find that folate deficiency could lead to neural tube defects, like spina bifida, anencephaly, and encephalocele. This discovery completely changed how doctors treated pregnancy, and women are now advised to eat foods rich in folate or to take folic acid supplements to help prevent neural tube defects. Doing so is estimated to have prevented 70 percent of neural tube defects.
Now, a new discovery out of Australia is believed to have the potential to be just as groundbreaking, and doctors say it could save millions of lives.
A research team at the Victor Chang Institute in Sydney found that a simple niacin supplement can help prevent not only multiple birth defects, but miscarriages as well. According to the American Pregnancy Association, as many as 1 in 4 pregnancies end in miscarriage. Millions of babies are also born with birth defects, and for much of history, it wasn’t known why this happens. The research team, led by Professor Sally Dunwoodie, was able to discover that a deficiency in a vital molecule called NAD prevents the baby’s organs from developing correctly — and this leads to birth defects or miscarriage.
Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is a molecule found in all living things, and NAD synthesis is used for energy production, DNA repair, and cell communication. When the production is disrupted, this causes an NAD deficiency, which can devastate a developing baby. In addition to causing miscarriages, the deficiency can also cause heart, spinal, kidney defects, as well as cleft palates.
The good news? Prevention can be as simple as taking a common vitamin. By taking a B3 — or niacin — supplement, Dunwoodie and her team believe that many miscarriages and birth defects can be prevented. “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 say those words lightly,” she said. “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.”
Many pregnant women are found to have low B3 levels, with at least a third having deficiencies in the first trimester, when organ development in preborn babies is most important. Watch the rapid developmental changes in the preborn child in this video:
The team at the Victor Chang Institute introduced a niacin supplement into the mothers’ diet, and found that miscarriages and defects were able to be prevented. Professor Robert Graham, executive director at the Victor Chang Institute, said that this may be one of the greatest medical discoveries to ever come out of Australia.
“Just like we now use folate to prevent spina bifida, Prof Dunwoodie’s research suggests that it is probably best for women to start taking vitamin B3 very early on even before they become pregnant,” he said. “This will change the way pregnant women are cared for around the world. We believe that this breakthrough will be one of our country’s greatest ever 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.”
The team’s findings have since been published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
What makes this breakthrough even more spectacular is that researchers made their discovery without harming preborn children. Instead, they used mice embryos. The research team identified two gene mutations that they found to affect the metabolic pathway for NAD. “That alone was a huge discovery,” Dunwoodie said. “This pathway had never before been associated with birth defects.” They then reproduced the mutations in mice, and made a startling discovery: this caused the mice to have the same birth defects as those found in humans.
The team then added niacin to the drinking water given to the mice, which is when they made their second breakthrough. “We got rid of the birth defects completely,” Dunwoodie said. “It’s a phenomenal finding.” While the research is promising, Dunwoodie still cautioned that more information is still needed. “The findings might be restricted to families with multiple miscarriages and multiple birth defects, but it could have a far broader relevance and affect many more families [at risk of having] babies with just one defect,” she said. “What we have now is the opportunity to do more research… this prevention measure needs to be confirmed in human trials.”
The next step will be to research what amount of niacin is safe for women to take and to see if the vitamin has the same effect on human babies as it did on mice. But it is an extremely promising breakthrough, and an example of pro-life science, with doctors finding ways to save lives without requiring that other lives be taken in the process.