A Discovery Bringing Closure: New Hope in Spina Bifida Prevention

Nancy Muller Health Pro
  • Spinal cord injuries (SCI) and fetal development gone awry, as in neural tube defects, have long been associated with symptoms of bladder and bowel control problems.  Just how such problems affect the bladder and bowel functions depends on where the SCI or defect occurs.  In the case of spina bifida, a neural tube defect occurring during the first month of pregnancy when spinal cord cells fail to "roll up" and close the spinal column, the lowest part of the spinal cord, known as the sacral spinal cord, is affected.  The sacral spinal cord controls bladder function, bladder and bowel external sphincters, sexual functions (including erections and ejaculation in men and responsiveness in women), and some leg muscles.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), spina bifida affects an estimated 3,000 pregnancies each year and is witnessed in seven out of 10,000 births.  There are approximately 70,000 Americans living with spina bifida today.  Those living with spina bifida experience varying degrees of physical disability.  However, most have to manage their bladder with daily self-catheterization and follow a bowel management routine to achieve the highest quality of life.

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    While various risk factors have been associated with the incidence of spina bifida, there is no certain form of prevention or cure.  The CDC undertook a rigorous public education campaign, including promotion of dietary folic acid in enriched grain products, in the 1990s and subsequently documented a precipitous drop in its occurrence.  In North Carolina, for example, the incidence of spina bifida in live births declined 27.2% between 1995-1996 and 1998-1999.  Interestingly, it is not entirely understood by scientists exactly how folic acid (Vitamin B9) makes a difference.  What is known about B9 is that it is essential for the synthesis of nucleic acids and the formation of the iron-carrying component of red blood cells.  Regardless of the mystery explaining the correlation, researchers have documented that folic acid in the diet- just a bowl of fortified cereal each day - prior to the onset of pregnancy lowers the risk of spina bifida by 70-75%. 


    At NAFC, we join others in celebrating a recently announced scientific discovery that may unlock the door to prevention of spina bifida (or cure) altogether.   The December 6 issue of Nature Cell Biology reveals the story of new findings that bring us much closer to eliminating its cause.  Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, teamed up with colleagues at the University of California - Berkeley, report a previously unknown link between protein transport and mouse spinal cord development.  When the protein secretion apparatus of the body fails to function, neural tube closure fails to occur, they discovered.


    At NAFC, we love to broadcast news of progress in biotechnology and pharmacology escorting advancements in drug therapy, new medical devices, and sophisticated materials for management to improve the lives of those facing bladder and bowel control difficulties. To read about the newest management and treatment products in the field of bladder and bowel control, request a copy of NAFC's DISCOVERIES® 2009-2010 by contacting us at memberservices@nafc.org or calling us at 1.800.BLADDER.  Visit our web site to read more about it.   We also celebrate significant discoveries that help us eliminate or correct causal factors altogether.  Congratulations, Hopkins and UC-Berkeley!


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    Nancy Muller


Published On: January 11, 2010