Editorial: Innovative Research
Birth defect rates are climbing. Of 38 birth defects monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 27 (71 percent) were more frequent in 1989 than a decade earlier. Only two decreased in the same interval, and the figures for the remainder were depressingly stagnant.
A bright spot has come from researchers carefully studying human populations to track down the causes of these defects. The discovery that folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects, such as spina bifida, began with the observation that these defects are common in areas where diets are low in folic acid, and was proven in tests showing the benefits of folic acid in human beings.
A new and stunning breakthrough has emerged in research on cerebral palsy and mental retardation. It began when researchers at the CDC set out to identify why some very low-birth-weight infants develop these conditions while others do not. They found that if the infants’ mothers had a preeclampsia, a syndrome of high blood pressure late in pregnancy, there was much less risk of brain hemorrhages in their babies that can lead to brain damage. As they studied the mothers and infants, it became clear that what was protecting the babies was not their mothers’ preeclampsia, but the magnesium sulfate used to treat it. When women received magnesium sulfate, the risk of brain injury in their infants was dramatically reduced.
The researchers then looked at other cases where magnesium was given during pregnancy. Indeed, statistics show that magnesium could potentially prevent 63 percent of cases of cerebral palsy and 49 percent of cases of mental retardation.
Diana Schendel, Ph.D., is leading this vital research, and is the winner of PCRM’s Research Innovation Award for 1998. Dr. Schendel completed her graduate studies at Pennsylvania State University and specializes in developmental disabilities. As an Acting Section Chief in the CDC’s Division of Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, she recognized the enormous potential importance of studies in magnesium and set about to gather the essential data in at-risk human populations to help clinicians prevent devastating birth defects.
Her research was funded by the U.S. government. Conspicuously absent from this effort was the March of Dimes, the wealthiest private charity in the birth defects arena. Its fundraising walks have brought in more than $700 million over the years, but its research projects remain under fire for their lack of applicability and their continuing focus on animals, rather than on tracking down the causes of human birth defects. More progressive charities, such as the Association of Birth Defect Children, have been working to redirect efforts toward elucidating the causes of birth defects in human populations.
Dr. Schendel’s work is an admirable example of the kind of effort of which we need much more. We thank her and her team for their dedication and vision.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM