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Preventing spina bifida and other disabling neural tube defects

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Research to further reduce the risk of babies being born with severe neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, has progressed towards a clinical trial for a new preventative treatment. This could go on to have global impact.

Pregnant woman holding a glass of water in one hand and a supplement tablet in her other outstretched palm.

Neural tube defects (NTDs) are severe developmental abnormalities that affect a baby’s brain, spine, or spinal column. They affect around one in 1,000 pregnancies, with 190 babies born alive with an NTD in the UK every year.

Taking folic acid during pregnancy helps to reduce the risk – and Action Medical Research supported vital work during the 1960s, '70s and '80s that helped establish this. But sadly, some babies are still born with these disabling or life-limiting conditions.

Supported by recent Action funding, Professor Nicholas Greene, at the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, has been investigating if taking a vitamin called inositol can also protect babies when they are developing inside the womb.

The research team developed sensitive biochemical methods which were used to work out how different levels of inositol may affect the risk of NTDs in developing babies.

Professor Greene hopes that this research could lead to a cheap, effective new approach to help further reduce the number of babies born with these disabling conditions in the future.

The findings of this work are now informing the design of a new clinical trial.

Professor Greene said: “The findings of this study will inform the design of a clinical trial which will test how well inositol works in preventing NTDs (over and above the protection currently provided by folic acid). We have already performed a pilot clinical trial in the UK, and we have obtained funding for a further clinical trial to be carried out over the next two years. If positive, implementation of inositol supplementation for prevention for NTDs could begin within five years and have worldwide impact.”

Our hope is that this will mean fewer parents receiving heart-breaking news about their baby"

Professor Nicholas Greene