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Closing in on neural tube defects.

Pregnant women who supplement their diets with folic acid, a B vitamin, can reduce their risk of delivering a baby with a neural tube defect, a malformation of the spinal cord. Yet researchers admit they still don't know how folic acid exerts its protective effect.

A new study may provide some clues. Muin J. Khoury and M.J. Adams Jr. at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and their colleagues decided to take a look at frozen blood samples obtained from pregnant women whose developing fetuses were being checked for the presence of a neural tube defect. The team wanted to see what differences, if any, existed in the blood taken from women who had delivered a baby with the defect and those who bore a healthy infant.

The team soon homed in on an amino acid called methylmalonic acid, or MMA. They discovered that women who had the highest concentrations of MMA in their bloodstreams had the greatest risk of delivering an infant with a neural tube defect. In fact, women with the highest concentrations of this chemical had a 13-fold greater risk of bearing a child with this defect than women whose blood contained the lowest concentrations of MMA, he adds.

If other researchers confirm the link between MMA and neural tube defects, the finding may help scientists figure out what goes wrong during the development of infants born with the condition. Indeed, Adams notes that MMA and folic acid are involved with methylation, the addition of methyl groups to an amino acid. He wonders if a neural tube defect results when this methylation process goes awry in the fetus.

For now, that theory remains unproven. "This whole finding is preliminary at this point. We really don't know what it means," Khoury says.
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Title Annotation:pregnant women with highest concentrations of methylmalonic acid in blood have greatest risk of having babies with neural tube defects
Author:Fackelmann, Kathy A.
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Jul 10, 1993
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