It's too early to call it a cure, but plain old vitamin A could curb the devastating effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
New research by an Israeli scientist suggests vitamin A could act almost like an antidote to the effects of alcohol on very early embryos during the critical development of the head and central nervous system. That's when the worst effects of FASD start.
"Scientifically, this is a very interesting story," said Abraham Fainsod, a professor of genetics and biochemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "If we can continue our research, we could do some good."
On Monday, the province pledged $750,000 to help set up a joint FASD research consortium between the Hebrew University and the University of Manitoba. Sorting through the vitamin A issue will be among the projects earmarked for funding.
"This has the possibility of being a relatively simple solution," said Geoff Hicks, Fainsod's counterpart at the U of M. "That's why everyone is so excited."
What research Fainsod has done on frogs, Hicks will now try to reproduce using mice, which are the model for mammals.
They'll be looking at retinoic acid, one of the main biological forms of vitamin A and a critical element in cell development and revitalization. That's why so many wrinkle creams tout vitamin A as a key ingredient.
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.
But Fainsod is quick to say vitamin A can never be seen as a licence to drink while pregnant. Too much vitamin A can cause birth defects that mimic the effects of alcohol. And scientists haven't yet figured out what the correct balance might be.
But vitamin A could one day be added to food like folic acid was added to white flour to reduce birth defects like spina bifida.
Or it could be given to at-risk populations or chronic alcoholics who are unable to quit drinking but who risk having multiple children with FASD.