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Cholesterol could be key to treating fetal alcohol syndrome

DURHAM, N.C. -- Small amounts of alcohol can interfere with the growth of a fetus, but added cholesterol may help prevent a wide array of neurological and physical defects from alcohol exposure, according to a new study in laboratory fish.

Cholesterol is so important to fetal development that pregnant women who do not have high enough cholesterol levels are at increased risk of having babies with developmental problems, even without consuming alcohol. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center, led by Yin-Xiong Li, MD., Ph.D., found that alcohol, even in small amounts, blocks the ability of cholesterol to orchestrate the complex series of events involved in regulating cell fates and organ development in the embryo. Encouragingly, the researchers also found that giving supplemental cholesterol to zebrafish embryos exposed to alcohol restored normal development.

Fetal alcohol syndrome is a term to describe an array of developmental defects affecting the nervous and cardiovascular systems. The syndrome also can lead to growth retardation, facial abnormalities and lowered mental functioning. It is estimated that approximately 100 babies are born in the United States each day with some degree of alcohol induced birth defects, at an annual cost of $10 billion to the health care system.

What alcohol does is interfere with a precisely orchestrated biochemical signaling pathway that guides fetal development. Cholesterol is essential for a single pathway that governs the pattern of tissue development and it is vulnerable to the effects of alcohol.

"This new insight into the molecular basis of fetal alcohol syndrome could have far-reaching implications and suggests new prenatal care that might prevent the developmental defects caused by alcohol consumed during pregnancy," Li said.

The researchers published the findings in the March 2007 issue of the journal Laboratory Investigation. The research was supported by the Nati
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Contact: Richard Merritt
Merri006@mc.duke.edu
919-684-4148
Duke University Medical Center
8-Mar-2007


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