Pill taken while pregnant could prevent birth defects

BRITISH experts are testing whether a new supplement taken in early pregnancy could cut the risk of defects including spina bifida.

A team is investigating whether women could take a single daily pill combining the new supplement and folic acid. Picture: PA
A team is investigating whether women could take a single daily pill combining the new supplement and folic acid. Picture: PA

Women are already urged to take folic acid during the first three months of pregnancy to reduce the chance of a baby suffering neural-tube defects. But data suggests some disorders appear to be unresponsive to it.

Now, a team from the research arm of London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital is investigating whether women could take a single daily pill combining the new supplement and folic acid.

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One reason why folic acid may not always work is that a genetic “blockage” occurs affecting how it is metabolised in cells.

The new supplement includes nucleotides, which are able to bypass this blockage, boosting the effect of folic acid and ensuring the growth of crucial cells.

Tests in mice with the new supplement resulted in an 85 per cent drop in the incidence of neural-tube defects. Some conditions that are currently unresponsive to folic acid were also prevented.

Nicholas Greene, professor of developmental neurobiology at the Institute of Child Health, which is the research partner of Great Ormond Street, said: “We are still in the early stages of this research but we hope that these promising results in mice can eventually be replicated with human neural-tube defects.”

Neural-tube defects affect about one in 1,000 babies in the UK every year and occur if there is a problem with the normal development of the nervous system.

At around 28 days after fertilisation, the developing spinal cord is an open tube but this usually closes. If this process does not occur correctly, spina bifida can result, potentially causing learning difficulties, disability or an exposed spinal cord.

Prof Greene said that, for now, women should continue to take folic acid supplements.

“While we continue our research into this new treatment, it’s important to emphasise that folic acid supplements remain the most effective prevention against neural tube defects currently available for women who are planning a baby.”

Previous research by the same team has found that a particular vitamin, inositol, also has a protective effect and this is now being tested in a clinical trial.

Official data from the European Surveillance of Congenital Anomalies shows there were 390 live births in the UK and Ireland of babies with neural-tube defects between 2007 and 2011.

A further 1,219 pregnancies ended in termination where the baby was found to have a neural-tube defect and possible other complications.

Jackie Bland, chief executive of the charity Shine, which supports people with spina bifida, said the research was an “exciting development” in an area that was a “source of incredible distress to parents”.

She added: “We very much welcome the concept of a single pregnancy supplement in future.

“We would, however, echo Prof Greene’s advice that the single most important message we can all give women for now is that they should take folic acid, at the correct dose, if there is any chance they might conceive.

“This in itself would significantly reduce the number of neural tube defects currently occurring in the UK, since only a minority of women take folic acid correctly.”

The study published in the journal Brain, was funded by the Wellcome Trust, Medical Research Council and the New-life Foundation for Disabled Children.