The new research found a 36 per cent reduction in limb malformations in the offspring of pregnant mice who were exposed to ethanol and also given a newly developed antioxidant compound called EUK-134.
"The nutritional status of alcoholics isn't the best. People who are alcoholic by definition can't control their drinking and often cannot quit drinking during pregnancy," said study author Kathleen K. Sulik, professor of cell and developmental biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"And so the practical point of this paper is that perhaps we can diminish some of the problems that might exist if the nutritional status of alcoholic mothers improves. It would be great if these women would supplement their diets with a daily multivitamin."
Antioxidants protect key cellular components by neutralising the damaging effects of free radicals, natural byproducts of cell metabolism, thought to contribute to ageing and various health problems. Dietary antioxidants have attracted considerable interest as potential treatments and preventative therapies for cancer, atherosclerosis, chronic inflammatory disease and ageing.
In studies on embryonic neural crest cells, which are very sensitive to ethanol, antioxidants were found to protect the cells from death, said Dr Shao-yu Chen, lead author of the new study, published on-line today in FASEB-J, the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Chen also has shown that ethanol-induced cell death is related to free radical generation. "We have used superoxide dismutase and vitamin E and found that in the presence of ethanol both agents reduce free radical production," he said.
Chen and Sulik extended their cell culture research to a whole embryo culture system. Early mouse embryos were grown in the laboratory and exposed to various levels of ethanol and antioxidants.
"Using this method, we also showed that SOD can diminish ethanol-induced cell death and subsequent malformations," Chen said.
However, just like alcohol, too many vitamins (especially vitamin A) can also be harmful to a foetus, Sulik said. "The idea of possibly adding antioxidants to alcoholic beverages has been proposed as a way of helping the situation, at least a little, for those women who are unable to quit drinking alcohol."