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Folic Acid Lowers Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease

ANN ARBOR---University of Michigan scientists have solved the mystery behind folic acid's ability to reduce amounts of a compound called homocysteine, which is associated with an increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and birth defects in humans.

A team of U-M researchers led by Rowena G. Matthews, Ph.D., and Martha L. Ludwig, Ph.D., discovered the chemical and structural basis for folic acid's effectiveness while conducting research on an enzyme called methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase (MTHFR). This enzyme with the tongue-twisting name catalyzes a critical step in the biochemical chain reaction within cells that converts homocysteine to an essential amino acid called methionine. The U-M study is being published in the April 1 issue of Nature Structural Biology.

"This work illustrates why basic scientific research is so important," said Matthews, the G. Robert Greenberg Distinguished University Professor of Biological Chemistry and chair of the U-M's Biophysics Research Division. "Our original goal was simply to learn more about the biochemistry of MTHFR. We had no prior indication of any specific health-related application for our work, nor did we imagine that this enzyme would prove to be so important for human health.

"Much of the credit should go to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health," Matthews added, "because they continue to provide funding for this type of untargeted basic research."

Since the 1970s, researchers have known that administration of folic acid dramatically protects against the development of birth defects like spina bifida in humans. More recent evidence has suggested a correlation between high levels of homocysteine in blood and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease or spina bifida. In the mid-1990s, scientists discovered that increased folic acid intake reduced homocysteine. But no one understood how folic acid exerted its effect until the U-M study.


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Contact: Sally Pobojewski
pobo@umich.edu
734-647-1844
University of Michigan
1-Apr-1999


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