Stem cells and everyday vitamin A could be the keys to curbing or curing FASD.
Scientists from New Jersey to Jerusalem are working on what may be two of the most promising breakthroughs since FASD was first given a name almost 40 years ago.
A Rutgers University professor thinks stem-cell research will lead to a cure in the next 15 years for some of the side-effects of fetal alcohol exposure -- including disease-related obesity, diabetes and a list of other health problems.
Prof. Dipak Sarkar's interest in alcohol research began in 1990, when he serendipitously observed the neuron-killing effect of a small dose of alcohol while working on neuronal development in lab rats.
The alcohol destroyed parts of the brain that maintain circadian rhythms and neurons that produce stress-relieving endorphins, he said.
Sarkar's research aims to use cell therapy to reverse some of that.
In 2009, his researchers found they could make endorphin cells in vitro from stem cells and put the stem cells in brains. They reprogrammed the body to replace the cells. The result was improved immune systems and lower stress levels.
"It's a major, major discovery," said the director of the endocrine program and biomedical division of the Center of Alcohol Studies by phone from New Jersey.
People with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder often try to relieve stress and feel better by using caffeine, nicotine, drugs or alcohol, but they end up feeling worse, he said. Using stem cells to put endorphins back in the brains of FASD patients isn't a cure-all, but it could help them feel and cope better, said Sarkar.
"In 15 years, we could really help these patients," he said.
Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, new research by an Israeli scientist suggests vitamin A could act as an antidote to the effects of alcohol on new embryos during the critical development of the head and central nervous system. That's when the worst effects of FASD start.
Abraham Fainsod, a professor of genetics and biochemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has been studying retinoic acid, one of the main biological forms of vitamin A and a critical element in cell development and revitalization.
Alcohol prevents the conversion of vitamin A to retinoic acid because both compete for one particular enzyme and the alcohol usually wins. While the body is processing alcohol, it's not making any new retinoic acid, which, in embryos, interrupts the normal development of the head and brain cells.
Fainsod's research suggests adding more vitamin A to the equation -- rebalancing the amount of alcohol and retinoic acid -- can reverse or curb brain defects caused by alcohol.
His research will benefit from a $750,000 grant from the Province of Manitoba to set up a joint consortium between scientists from the University of Manitoba and Fainsod's lab in Israel.
Vitamin A could one day be added to food the way folic acid was added to white flour to reduce birth defects such as spina bifida. But Fainsod is quick to say vitamin A should never be seen as a licence to drink while pregnant. Too much vitamin A can cause the same kinds of birth defects as alcohol, and scientists haven't yet figured out what the correct balance is.
Back in New Jersey, Sarkar sees a much broader spectrum of problems caused by alcohol than just a cognitive or brain disorder.
"FAS is not in one particular organ, and it has vast consequences," he said. "Alcohol given during fetal growth produces a major effect on the brain, the heart, the bones and metabolic system."
-- with files from Mary Agnes Welch