Recruits from Texas Needed for Birth Defect Prevention Study

January 26, 2004

January 26, 2004
Birth Defect Prevention Study
Contact: Kay Kendall (713) 677-7736
The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center
Institute of Biosciences and Technology
Recruits from Texas Needed for Birth Defect Prevention Study
January is National Birth Defects Prevention Month. Each year about 150,000 babies nationwide, or one in every 33 babies, are born with birth defects – the leading cause of infant death and childhood disability. Additionally, about one percent of school age children have mental retardation.
“The good news,” notes genetic epidemiologist Laura E. Mitchell, Ph.D., “is that prevention efforts offer hope for decreasing the number of families affected by birth defects.” Dr. Mitchell is an associate professor at The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center’s Institute of Biosciences and Technology (IBT) in Houston, and also holds an appointment with Baylor College of Dentistry in Dallas, another component of the A&M Health Science Center.
Dr. Mitchell is a member of IBT’s Center for Environmental and Genetic Medicine, where she researches the causes of common birth defects, such as cleft lip and spina bifida, seeking to understand more completely how genes influence the development of these conditions. Other research in the center focuses on the interactions between genes and environmental toxicants as they influence embryonic development. Richard H. Finnell, Ph.D., director of the Institute of Biosciences and Technology, currently has four major research areas, all of which focus on determining susceptibility to environmentally induced birth defects. As Dr. Mitchell concludes, “In our center, we are doing all we can to devise preventive strategies to avoid birth defects.”
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends that all women of childbearing age consume 400 micrograms of folic acid every day to prevent up to 70 percent of neural tube defects. Recent surveys by the March of Dimes and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that while most women reported that they had heard of folic acid less than one-third take it daily, fewer than 25 percent knew that it helps to prevent birth defects, and less than 20 percent knew to take it before pregnancy.
“Clearly, there is more work to be done to support the folic acid message,” says Dr. Mitchell. “Priority areas include prevention, identification and assessment, active surveillance, interventions and education. Adverse effects of alcohol during pregnancy serve as a reminder that abstinence during pregnancy should be recommended to preconceptional and pregnant women.”
“Some birth defects are preventable, and my research indicates that a woman’s genes influence the in utero environment in a way that may effect the development of a birth defect,” she continues. “I am involved in a study known as the Spina Bifida Research Resource, which investigates the causes of spina bifida, a common birth defect. Since the study began in 1997, we have enrolled more than 400 families. We are recruiting more families for this study in Texas, with a goal of enrolling 700 families. By adding more families from Texas, we hope to reach our goal.”
Dr. Mitchell’s study is funded by two grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Anyone who wishes to suggest families for enrollment in the study should contact Dr. Mitchell at
The Texas A&M University System Health Science Center provides the state with health education, outreach and research. Its five components located in communities throughout Texas are Baylor College of Dentistry, the College of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the Institute of Biosciences and Technology and the School of Rural Public Health.

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