Vitamin C May Help Preemies Survive

Mouse study suggests nutrient is vital to brain, lung function

FRIDAY, May 3, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- New research in mice suggests that plain old vitamin C could be the key to preventing brain and lung damage in premature babies.

"It's a completely unanticipated role for vitamin C. It appears to have an important role to play in preparing a fetus for living outside the womb," says Dr. Robert Nussbaum, chief of the Genetic Disease Research Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute and author of a study on the nutrient's impact.

The study findings appear in the May issue of the journal Nature Medicine.

Normal pregnancies last about 40 weeks. Premature babies born at 32 weeks or earlier often suffer from breathing problems and bleeding in the brain; some die while others suffer lifelong disabilities.

"They're prone to all kinds of other illnesses in childhood," Nussbaum says.

A wide variety of disorders affects premature babies. British researchers have found that half of babies born before 26 weeks suffer from mental or physical disabilities at age 2.

Nussbaum and his colleagues tinkered with mouse genes, and bred several mice that could not absorb vitamin C properly into their cells.

Within minutes of birth, the infant mice died of massive bleeding in the brain and respiratory failure when their lungs failed to take in air.

"I really did not anticipate the clinical problem that these newborn mouse fetuses developed," Nussbaum says. "I didn't expect them to die within the first few minutes of birth of these complications."

The vital role of vitamin C "makes sense from a common sense point of view" because the nutrient is an antioxidant, Nussbaum says. That means it protects proteins and tissues inside the body from the harmful effects of too much oxygen exposure.

There is less oxygen inside the womb than outside, suggesting that vitamin C may be crucial in preparing the fetus to go into a new environment, he says.

Nussbaum cautions the findings need to be confirmed in humans by measuring the level of vitamin C in premature infants to see if there's any connection to their overall health.

If the findings hold up, vitamin C could join steroids on the list of major treatments for pregnant women to help premature infants live in a world they enter too early, he says.

An estimated one in five people don't consume the recommended daily allowance of vitamin C, which is 75 milligrams. An orange has about 70 milligrams.

Pregnant women are especially likely to have low levels of the nutrient in their bodies, says Dr. John McHugh, an obstetrician/gynecologist at Scripps Mercy Hospital in San Diego.

McHugh urges his patients to eat several servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day, and he also gives them prenatal vitamins containing 100 milligrams of vitamin C.

What To Do

For more on premature babies, check out Neonatology on the Web or the Baby Zone.

To learn more about developmental problems, visit the Developmental Disabilities Heath Alliance.

How much vitamin C is in your favorite fruit? Get the answer from the Natural Food Hub.

SOURCES: Robert Nussbaum, M.D. chief, Genetic Disease Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, Md.; John McHugh, M.D., obstetrician/gynecologist, Scripps Mercy Hospital, San Diego; May 2002 Nature Medicine
Consumer News