Birth Defects Insights: Mechanisms, Models, Mothers and Babies: Bringing Birth Defects Research into Practice

I’m sometimes asked why I do what I do. Why am I involved with birth defects research? Why am I passionately part of a Society that works to better understand birth defects and prevent them? My answer - it literally can affect every person on Earth, and the impact on individuals is lifelong. Birth defects and reproductive and developmentally mediated disorders remain a major global public health concern. Recent events make that clear. The Zika epidemic and the ongoing opioid crisis underscore the importance of understanding potential risks of maternal exposures and environmental factors to the developing fetus.

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Critical to the understanding of birth defects are contributions from many diverse research areas, from basic developmental biology, genetics, cellular and molecular biology, toxicology, computational and systems biology, clinical practice and epidemiology, and risk assessment.  This diverse, multidisciplinary and translational approach to the understanding and ultimate prevention of adverse developmental outcomes will be showcased at the upcoming 58th Annual Meeting of the Teratology Society June 23-27 in Clearwater Beach, Florida. The meeting provides an important forum for the presentation of new research, exchange of ideas, and fostering collaboration among scientists across disciplines. Sessions at the meeting will present emerging research on the effects of maternal and environmental factors on offspring, including infectious diseases, botanical supplements, and air pollution, as well as evaluating the impact of a variety of public health approaches to education and prevention of birth defects, and challenges in the development of new therapeutics for the treatment of neonates and rare childhood diseases.

This multidisciplinary approach is important to the fight against direct threats to future generations, like the Zika virus. Just ask Celeste Philip, MD, MPH, our highly anticipated Keynote Speaker and current Surgeon General and Secretary of the Florida Department of Health. “We are still working toward solutions like vaccine development, point-of-care testing, and proven vector control methods to ensure that Zika never poses as much of a threat as it did in 2016,” she said. “Mosquito-borne illness will always be a threat in Florida, but we are certainly not unique in that regard, so it is especially crucial for us to convey the importance of prevention to the public and our partners on both a local and global scale,” she added.

Additional areas of concern affecting communities far and wide include:  

Progress in the Understanding of Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have been estimated to occur in as many as 1 in 59 children, and often occurs with other developmental, psychiatric, neurologic, chromosomal, and genetic diagnoses. Environmental and genetic factors leading to ASDs are poorly understood. Progress in understanding the embryological origins of ASD will be presented.

The Impact of Opiate Use on Pregnancy and Child Development

The use of opioid drugs is a critical and growing public health crisis, with a high potential risk in pregnancy. The impact of this crisis on pregnancy and the developing fetus and emerging research on the underlying neurodevelopmental effects of prenatal opioid exposure from animal and human research will be highlighted.

Application of New Technologies in the Understanding of Birth Defects

Research methods, new models and technologies are emerging quickly, allowing researchers to explore new questions related to the fundamental understanding of mechanisms causing birth defects. Several of these new technologies will be highlighted during the meeting. The development and application of organotypic culture models using human cells have provided powerful new tools to investigate pathways of normal and abnormal development. Genomic sequencing has revolutionized our understanding of the causes of birth defects, and the current status of genome-wide sequencing as a diagnostic test for genetic causes of birth defects will be discussed. Epigenetic regulation of gene expression, including DNA methylation, posttranslational histone modification, and non-coding RNAs, is critical to the development of all organ systems and has become increasingly recognized as a target for environmental influences on developmental outcomes.  

About the Author

Dana Shuey, PhD, DABT, is the Executive Director of Toxicology at Incyte, a biopharmaceutical company, and current Vice President of the Teratology Society.

About the Teratology Society

To understand and prevent birth defects and disorders of developmental and reproductive origin, the Teratology Society promotes multi-disciplinary research and exchange of ideas; communicates information to health professionals, decision-makers, and the public; and provides education and training.

Scientists interested in or already involved in research related to topics mentioned in this blog are encouraged to join the Teratology Society and the 58th Annual Meeting June 23 – 27, 2018, the premier source for cutting-edge research and authoritative information related to birth defects and developmentally-mediated disorders. Teratology Society members include those specializing in cell and molecular biology, developmental biology and toxicology, reproduction and endocrinology, epidemiology, nutritional biochemistry, and genetics, as well as the clinical disciplines of prenatal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, neonatology, medical genetics, and teratogen risk counseling. In addition, the Teratology Society publishes the scientific journal, Birth Defects Research.  Learn more at Find the Teratology Society on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter

This blog is also available on LinkedIn here. All past Birth Defects Insights blog may be found here.


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