Alcohol and vaping: New research looks at effects on fetal development

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A novel testing method and a first-of-its-kind treatment are at the center of two new National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Project Grants recently awarded to Jayanth Ramadoss, associate professor and director of the Perinatal Research Laboratory in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology.

The grants total almost $4 million and will continue Ramadoss’ research efforts to improve the health of children.

“This kind of research is so important. For example, we’ve known about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) since the 1970s and there are still no approved medicines specifically to treat it,” Ramadoss said.  “These grants show that we have made good progress in these efforts.”

The research funded by the first NIH grant focuses on identifying specific alcohol target pathways that cause FASD, which could provide critical insight for the development of treatments.

“We have observed a unique interaction of alcohol with a compound that shows it might have the possibility to prevent some of these effects from occurring in children,” he said.

According to Ramadoss, the main outcome of FASD, which is more common than autism, is impairments in behavioral and social interactions; while it carries a societal cost of an estimated $1.4 billion annually, that cost is mostly hidden.

“The stigma and fear of judgement is a major barrier to treat FASD,” he said. “As a society, it would be better to reduce the stigma while discussing FASD.”

While at least the neuroanatomic and behavioral consequences of fetal exposure to alcohol have been known for some time, treatment options remain largely in the form of medicines approved for some FASD symptoms.

“The estimated number of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders has, unfortunately, not declined in the U.S. for decades, with as many as 5% of school-going children believed to be affected,” he said.

In addition to alcohol, Ramadoss is also studying the possible risks of vaping during pregnancy.

One of the reasons that research is behind society’s use of e-cigarettes is that many laboratory testing methods aren’t good models for the actual vaping patterns. These methods can involve a drinkable liquid or injections of the vaping liquid. But Ramadoss said that a novel testing method developed in his lab could lead to answers.

“We’re using an atomizer, identical to the ones in e-cigarettes used worldwide, to create a custom engineered vaping system,” he said. “We are trying to mimic exactly what’s happening in human vaping.”

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