March 3, 2011

Lecturer working to prevent diabetes-induced birth defects

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E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, speaks on birth defects at his Discovery Lecture. (photo by Mary Donaldson)

Lecturer working to prevent diabetes-induced birth defects

In his approach to research, birth defects expert E. Albert Reece, M.D., Ph.D., MBA, believes that it “should be both interesting and important” to aiding human health.

And his lab's research on diabetes-induced birth defects encompasses both of those values, he said at his Feb. 24 Discovery Lecture.

Birth defects are the leading cause of infant mortality worldwide. “So how is the United States doing in this area?” he asked. “Not very well.”

The infant mortality rate in the United States is a dismal 6.7 per 1000 live births, he noted. While most causes of birth defects are unknown, up to 10 percent of infants of mothers with diabetes are born with congenital abnormalities, many of which can be life threatening.

This portion of birth defects could be prevented, he said, if we better understand the mechanisms that cause them.

In his talk, Reece, the vice president for Medical Affairs, the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor and dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Maryland, detailed his work on understanding these mechanisms.

His lab has shown that a key factor in diabetes-induced birth defects is oxidative stress — a condition of excess production of “reactive oxygen species,” along with deficiencies in the body's anti-oxidant mechanisms to counter these harmful molecules.

Reece described the cellular and biochemical changes (including the depletion in membrane lipids and phospholipids and excess “free radicals”) that play important roles in these anomalies.

Reece and colleagues have found several potential interventions — including supplementation with vitamin E, safflower oil, and/or myo-inositol — that seem to prevent birth defects in a diabetic mouse model.

While tight control of glucose levels in diabetic women could also go a long way toward preventing these birth defects, he notes that other options are needed because most pregnancies are unplanned and glucose control would need to begin preconception.

His lab is now moving these findings from in vitro and rodent models to begin testing some of these interventions in primates and humans.

Reece's lecture was sponsored by the Department of Pediatrics. For a schedule of the Discovery Lecture series and video of previous lectures, go to