Richard H. Finnell, Ph.D., is one of two guest editors of a special issue of American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part C, Seminars in Medical Genetics. This issue is called Neural Tube Defects and is an offshoot of the third International Neural Tube Defects Symposium, held in 2003. Dr. Finnell was an organizer of the three international conferences, as was his co-editor of the special issue, Helga Toriello, Ph.D.
Dr. Finnell is Regents Professor and director of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, which is located in the famed Texas Medical Center in Houston and is a part of The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center. His research focuses on the genetic regulation of environmentally induced birth defects, particularly those that are responsive to folic acid. Dr. Toriello is a director of genetics services at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and her interests include neural tube defects and fetal alcohol syndrome, among others. Both scientists are world-recognized for their contributions to understanding the causes, molecular biology, and epidemiology of neural tube defects.
The international conferences were begun to support the Healthy People 2010 goal of reducing the number of infants born with spina bifida and other neural tube defects to three new cases per 10,000 live births. To meet this goal, attendees gathered from various research disciplines to discuss findings and to form small discussion groups to establish new collaborations for future research that includes sharing of biological samples. The principal areas addressed both in the conferences and in the journal issue were embryology, epidemiology, mouse models, suspected environmental factors contributing to these malformations (like maternal diabetes and obesity) and the importance of folate, both in terms of reducing neural tube defects with supplementation and mechanisms by which folate exerts its protective effect.
The neural tube is the part of the human embryo that gives rise to the brain and spinal cord. Normally the closure of the neural tube occurs around the 30th day after fertilization. However, if something interferes and the tube fails to close properly, a neural tube defect occurs. Each year spina bifida and anencephaly, the two most common forms of neural tube defects, occur in approximately one of every 1,000 pregnancies in the United States and in an estimated 300,000 newborns worldwide.

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