Scientists have begun a study to determine if an everyday vitamin supplement could help prevent one of Britain's most common birth defects.
Every year about 100 children in the UK are born with spina bifida and other neural tube defects. Prospective mothers are advised to take folic acid as a way of preventing the condition. However, scientists think the vitamin inositol, taken with folic acid, may be more effective at preventing defects.
Despite taking folic acid, also known as vitamin B9, some woman still go on to have children with neural tube defects. Many more pregnancies are terminated when the condition is diagnosed by ultrasound scan. Scientists think inositol could prevent these extra cases. Tests on mice suggest it stimulates tissue growth in the embryo to prevent neural tube defects.
Dr Nick Greene is one of the researchers working on the project at the Institute of Child Health, University College London.
"Inositol is a naturally occurring molecule a bit like glucose", he said. "It's in meat, fruit and vegetables. We don't think the women are deficient in inositol in their diets but from our experimental work we know inositol can stimulate cells in the developing embryo to proliferate more quickly, and that corrects the defect that would develop in spina bifida."