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 Dr. Jayanth Ramadoss, associate professor and director of the Perinatal Research Laboratory in the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences’ (CVMBS) Department of Veterinary Physiology & Pharmacology (VTPP).
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.”
Searching for a treatment for FASD
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.
Getting the full picture of vaping
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.”
Compared to drinking, where the risks are known, very little is understood about the risks of vaping during pregnancy.
“People have a feeling that vaping is safer than smoking cigarettes, but we know these e-cigarettes also contain carcinogenic chemicals, maybe not as many, but they’re there.” Ramadoss said.
Vaping has not been endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a safer smoking alternative, and some adverse effects have already been studied. That hasn’t slowed the spread of its usage, though, and in 2016 the United States Surgeon General announced that vaping was a major health concern.
As little is known about vaping during pregnancy, basically nothing is known about the effects on children of being around someone who is vaping. Scientists call this e-cigarette version of second-hand smoking “environmental vaping” and Ramadoss hopes his research will shed some light on the issue.
“We know if you’re in a room with someone who’s vaping that you’re breathing in that same vapor,” he said. “Is that safe? We don’t know. Hopefully this study can help provide some of that information.”
A multiplying effect
Alcohol and nicotine are often comorbidities, so Ramadoss said it made sense to expand his research focus to include e-cigarettes.
“Both the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are interested in finding answers to many questions related to e-cigarettes,” he said. “What are the thresholds? Is it safe? There are so many questions that we haven’t been able to answer yet, and I think our study is going to get some of the answers.”
His receiving these grants, even while budgets are tight because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, show the importance of these research areas.
“These grants are very hard to get, especially during difficult times,” he said. “But that shows how important this is to the NIH.”
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216