Jewish Tribune Article: "Universities Team Up For Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research"

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Jewish Tribune Article: "Universities Team Up For Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Research"

Winnipeg – The University of Manitoba has teamed up with Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Manitoba government to support a new research collaboration to address fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD).

To fund this initiative, the province will provide up to $750,000 from the Manitoba Research and Innovation Fund. During the next five years, the Manitoba government will match funds raised by the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University (CFHU) towards a new Canada-Israel FASD research consortium.

Dr. Abraham Fainsod“We’re thrilled to see research, which began 12 years ago in Dr. Abraham Fainsod’s lab at Hebrew University, now be the focus of this collaboration with University of Manitoba researchers,” said Faith Kaplan, Winnipeg CFHU chapter president.

“FASD is a serious concern in communities around the world and we’re confident our research consortium will improve the understanding of what leads to children being born with it. Such collaboration is completely consistent with Hebrew University’s mission to improve the world.”

Fainsod’s new research suggests that 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 – precisely when the most serious effects of FASD start.

“Scientifically, this is a very interesting story,” said Fainsod, a Hebrew University genetics and biochemistry professor. “If we can continue our research, we could do some good.”

The substance under scrutiny will be retinoic acid, a main biological form of Vitamin A and a critical element in cell development and revitalization (hence, why it is used in skin rejuvenating creams).

Alcohol prevents Vitamin A from being able to convert into retinoic acid, as both compete for one particular enzyme and the alcohol usually wins. Even more, as the body is busy processing alcohol, it stops making any new retinoic acid, interrupting normal head and brain cell development in embryos.

What Fainsod’s research suggests is that by adding more Vitamin A, rebalancing the alcohol and retinoic acid levels, brain defects caused by alcohol can be reversed or curbed.

Dr. Albert ChudleyDr. Ab Chudley is Manitoba’s FASD expert, working in the field for decades, and is the U of M’s lead researcher.

“Alcohol affects many different parts of the brain, not just things like having small eyes and cranial or facial abnormalities,” said Dr. Chudley. “Many FASD-affected kids are impaired in the ability to learn and other critical functions.”

In early July, Dr. Chudley attended an Israel-Canada technology summit, where a delegation of scientists grappled with issues of neuroscience.  

“At the summit, I visited Haifa, and one of my colleagues, another clinical geneticist, brought to my attention a study that she and her colleagues had done in Israel – looking at the proportion of Israeli women who were pregnant and who drank during the pregnancy. It was around 15 per cent.  

“This came as a real surprise to me and others who never considered drinking to be an issue in Israel. I think, with the demographic change, with people from Europe coming to Israel, the culture has changed.”

Dr. Chudley said the FASD research is in its early stages, but if the animal studies go well, the next possibility would be to study it in humans in FASD-affected communities. From there, he anticipates “we might find that people of certain ethnic backgrounds are at greater risk of having FASD.”

As things stand, Dr. Chudley estimated the research time frame to be completed in five years.

“We hope to have most of the animal answers within the first or second year, and some of the genetic studies done by then,” he said.  “When it comes to looking at intervention in a particular community that will, I hope, be more than five years down the road.”

Although Dr. Chudley said FASD prevention will likely result from the research, a cure is not anticipated, noting FASD-affected children have it as a life-long disability.

In Dr. Chudley’s view, “FASD is important globally, not only in Canada. Like Israel, we’re interested in this research from a science and biology perspective, as well as dealing with this public health issue.  

“We haven’t been very effective in getting women to not drink while pregnant.  The problem, sometimes, is that pregnancies aren’t planned. So, during critical periods of a baby’s development, a woman may not even know she’s pregnant and will still be drinking.

“Our aim is to perhaps improve the health of communities, enhancing and encouraging healthy living and diet. Whether that will include a vitamin supplement remains to be seen.”

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