Fetal alcohol syndrome is the leading preventable cause of developmental disorders in developed countries. And fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), a range of alcohol-related birth defects that includes fetal alcohol syndrome, is thought to affect as many as 1 in 100 children born in the United States.
Any amount of alcohol consumed by the mother during pregnancy poses a risk of FASD, a condition that can include the distinct pattern of facial features and growth retardation associated with fetal alcohol syndrome as well as intellectual disabilities, speech and language delays, and poor social skills. But drinking can have radically different outcomes for different women and their babies. While twin studies have suggested a genetic component to susceptibility to FASD, researchers have had little success identifying who is at greatest risk or what genes are at play.
Research from Harvard Medical School and Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System sheds new light on this question, identifying for the first time a signaling pathway that might determine genetic susceptibility for the development of FASD. The study was published online Feb. 18 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Our work points to candidate genes for FASD susceptibility and identifies a path for the rational development of drugs that prevent ethanol neurotoxicity," said Michael Charness, chief of staff at VA Boston Healthcare System and HMS professor of neurology. "And importantly, identifying those mothers whose fetuses are most at risk could help providers better target intensive efforts at reducing drinking during pregnancy."
The discovery also solves a riddle that had intrigued Charness and other researchers for nearly two decades. In 1996, Charness and colleagues discovered that alcohol disrupted the work of a human protein critical to fetal neural development-a major clue to the biological processes of FASD. The protein, L1, projects through the surface of a cell to help it adhere to its neighbors. When Charness and his team introduced the protein to a culture of mouse fibroblasts cells, L1 increased cell adhesion. Tellingly, the effect was erased in the presence of ethanol (beverage alcohol).
Charness and his team went on to develop multiple cell lines from that first culture, and that's where they encountered the riddle: In some of those lines, alcohol disrupted L1's adhesive effect, while in others it did not.
"How could it be possible that a cell that expresses L1 is completely sensitive to alcohol, and others that express it are completely insensitive?" asked Charness, who is also faculty associate dean for veterans hospital programs at HMS and assistant dean at Boston University School of Medicine.
Clearly, something else was affecting the protein's sensitivity to alcohol - but what? Studies of twins provided one clue: Identical twins are more likely than fraternal twins to have the same diagnosis, positive or negative, for FASD. "That concordance suggests that there are modifying genes, susceptibility genes, that predispose to this condition," Charness said.
In the current study, Charness' team and collaborators at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill conducted cell culture experiments to identify specific molecular events that contribute to the alcohol sensitivity of L1 adhesion molecules. They focused on what was happening to the L1 molecule inside a cell that could affect an event outside the cell such as disruption by alcohol.