UK experts are testing whether a new supplement taken in early pregnancy could cut the risk of defects including spina bifida.
Women are already urged to take folic acid during the first three months of pregnancy to reduce the chance of babies suffering neural tube defects.
But data suggests folic acid cannot prevent occurrence of all these conditions and some disorders appear unresponsive.
Now, a team of researchers at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London is investigating whether women could take a single daily pill combining the new supplement and folic acid.
Folic acid may not always work because a genetic “blockage” affects cell metabolism.
The new supplement includes nucleotides, which can bypass this blockage, boosting the effect of folic acid and ensuring crucial cells grow.
Tests in mice produced in an 85 per cent drop in the incidence of neural tube defects. Some conditions currently unresponsive to folic acid were also prevented.
Nicholas Greene, professor of developmental neurobiology at the Institute of Child Health (ICH), based at 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. If it is found to be effective, this nucleotide treatment could boost the effects of folic acid and offer expectant mothers an even more reliable safeguard against relatively common defects like spina bifida.”
Neural tube defects affect about one baby in 1,000 in the UK every year and occur if there is a problem with nervous system development.
At about 28 days after fertilisation, the developing spinal cord is an open tube but this usually closes. If this does not occur correctly, spina bifida can result, potentially causing learning difficulties, disability or even an exposed spinal cord.
The Department of Health recommends women take a daily supplement of 400 micrograms of folic acid (also known as vitamin B9) while trying to conceive and for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
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.
“While we are greatly encouraged by these new findings, I would strongly urge women to continue taking folic acid in its current form until we reach a point where additional supplements might become available.”