Manitoba Pledges $750 000 For Joint Research with IMRIC and University of Manitoba

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It's too early to call it a cure, but plain old vitamin A could curb the devastating effects of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

New research by an Israeli scientist suggests 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. That's when the worst effects of FASD start.

"Scientifically, this is a very interesting story," said Abraham Fainsod, a professor of genetics and biochemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "If we can continue our research, we could do some good."

Geoff Hicks and Dave Chomiak

On Monday, the province pledged $750,000 to help set up a joint FASD research consortium between the Hebrew University and the University of Manitoba. Sorting through the vitamin A issue will be among the projects earmarked for funding.

"This has the possibility of being a relatively simple solution," said Geoff Hicks, Fainsod's counterpart at the U of M. "That's why everyone is so excited."

What research Fainsod has done on frogs, Hicks will now try to reproduce using mice, which are the model for mammals.

They'll be looking at retinoic acid, one of the main biological forms of vitamin A and a critical element in cell development and revitalization. That's why so many wrinkle creams tout vitamin A as a key ingredient.

Alcohol prevents the conversion of vitamin A to retinoic acid because both compete for one particular enzyme and the alcohol usually wins. While the body is processing alcohol, it's not making any new retinoic acid, which, in embryos, interrupts the normal development of the head and brain cells.

Fainsod's research suggests adding more vitamin A to the equation -- rebalancing the amount of alcohol and retinoic acid -- can reverse or curb brain defects caused by alcohol.

But Fainsod is quick to say vitamin A can never be seen as a licence to drink while pregnant. Too much vitamin A can cause birth defects that mimic the effects of alcohol. And scientists haven't yet figured out what the correct balance might be.

But vitamin A could one day be added to food like folic acid was added to white flour to reduce birth defects like spina bifida.

Or it could be given to at-risk populations or chronic alcoholics who are unable to quit drinking but who risk having multiple children with FASD.

Facts About FASD

  • Stunts development of individual brain cells and major parts of the brain, such as the main processing centre of the cerebellum and the corpus callosum, a thick band of fibres in the brain's core that connects the right and left hemispheres.
  • Affects more people than Down syndrome and autism combined and costs Canadians at least $5.3 billion a year.
  • Is virtually invisible and mired in stigma. Diagnosis is tricky, services are spotty and schools, the courts and the working world are almost perfectly set up for people with FASD to fail.
  • Is widely seen as an "aboriginal problem." It is not. Alcohol-related birth defects affect every race and income level. In fact, experts say the group most at risk are students or professional women in their late 20s or early 30s who binge-drink on the weekends and may not realize they are pregnant until the damage is done. But several studies in the United States and on some Manitoba reserves suggest FASD rates are higher among aboriginal people. Poverty can be a factor in alcoholism, and there is some research, with conflicting conclusions, into whether indigenous people have some genes that alter the way alcohol is metabolized, leading to higher rates of abuse and binge drinking.
  • Includes fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which is the most severe form of FASD with facial defects. It also includes ARND or alcohol-related neurodevelopmental disorder, the biggest, but most invisible version of FASD. People with ARND don't have the facial features, but they suffer many of the same serious brain and behavioural difficulties that make life a struggle.

The series so far

With the help of a research grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Winnipeg Free Press has spent the last several months looking into the invisible FASD epidemic. Saturday, they outlined how a brain affected by FASD works and how much it costs taxpayers -- at least $5.3 billion a year. In the coming weeks, they will take a deeper look at how FASD is clogging the justice and child-welfare systems, what it takes to get a diagnosis and what can be done to fix the problem. To read the stories, see videos and interactive elements, visit

Research Topic

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder is the leading known cause of developmental disability in Canada. Innocent children contract this disorder due to maternal consumption of alcohol during pregnancy.