February 22, 2006

Gene mutation protects fetus from alcohol’s effects

By David Douglas

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A mutation of an enzyme gene
seems to protect the fetus against alcohol consumed by the
mother, according to a study of mothers and their infants.

Lead researcher Dr. Sandra W. Jacobson told Reuters Health
that "our research has shown that about 20 percent of African
American children are born to mothers with a particular genetic
(mutation), which makes it less likely that maternal drinking
during pregnancy will adversely affect their child's

This mutation, she added, "has been shown to be related to
the speed with which alcohol is metabolized by the mother.
Unfortunately, most African American as well as Caucasian
children are not protected by this (mutation) and are,
therefore, at risk of developing fetal alcohol effects if their
mothers drink heavily or even moderately during pregnancy."

In the Journal of Pediatrics, Jacobson of Wayne State
University in Detroit and colleagues report on their study of
263 mother and child pairs. Two hundred fourteen of the women
consumed alcohol during pregnancy.

Women with one or two copies of the genetic mutation,
termed ADH1B*3, tended to drink less during pregnancy, and
their offspring were free of toxic effects. "The negative
effects of alcohol exposure were seen only in infants whose
mothers lacked" the mutation altogether, the team found.

"Some women who drink during pregnancy will, therefore,
give birth to unaffected children," continued Jacobson.
"However, others should recognize that this does not mean that
they are similarly protected."

In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Kenneth Lyons Jones of
the University of California San Diego in La Jolla calls the
implications of the study important. What may be "safe" in some
women may lead to adverse pregnancy outcomes in others.

The findings, he concludes, bolster the recommendation of
the US Surgeon General that "the optimal approach to alcohol
use in pregnancy is abstinence."

SOURCE: Journal of Pediatrics, January 2006.