Victor Chang Institute on Today Show

Pregnancy Double Discovery

Historic Discovery has the Potential to Prevent Miscarriages and Birth Defects Globally

7 August 2017

UPDATE Click here to read the latest statement from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.


A blockbuster, world-first breakthrough at Sydney’s Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute has the potential to prevent recurrent miscarriages and multiple types of birth defects, in one of Australia's most significant discoveries in pregnancy research.

Crucially, Australian scientists have also demonstrated a potential treatment, in the form of a common dietary supplement.

This historic discovery is expected to forever change the way pregnant women are cared for around the globe. Every year 4.9 million babies are born with a birth defect worldwide and one in four pregnant women suffer a miscarriage in Australia. In the vast majority of cases, the cause of these problems has remained a mystery. Until now.

This breakthrough, led by Professor Sally Dunwoodie from the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, has identified a potential cause of recurrent miscarriages as well as heart, spinal, kidney and cleft palate problems in newborn babies.

Professor Sally Dunwoodie at Victor Chang Institute
“The ramifications are likely to be huge. This has the potential to significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects around the world, and I do not use those words lightly,” says Professor Dunwoodie.

The landmark study found that a deficiency in a vital molecule, known as NAD, can prevent a baby’s organs from developing correctly in the womb.

Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD) is one of the most important molecules in all living cells. NAD synthesis is essential for energy production, DNA repair and cell communication. Environmental and genetic factors can disrupt its production, which can cause a NAD deficiency.

World-first research at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute has found that this deficiency can be particularly harmful during a pregnancy as it can potentially cripple an embryo when it is forming.

“Now, after 12 years of research, our team has also discovered that this deficiency can potentially be treated and miscarriages and birth defects potentially prevented by taking a common vitamin,” Professor Dunwoodie revealed.
A baby in NICU

At the heart of the paramount discovery is the dietary supplement vitamin B3, also known as niacin. Scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute have discovered simply boosting levels of this nutrient during pregnancy can potentially prevent recurrent miscarriages and birth defects.

Vitamin B3 is required to make NAD and is typically found in meats and green vegetables as well as vegemite. However, a recent study[1] found that despite taking vitamin supplements at least a third of pregnant women may have low levels of vitamin B3 in their first trimester, which is the critical time in organ development. By the third trimester, vitamin B3 levels were low in 60% of pregnant women. This possibly indicates pregnant women may require more vitamin B3 than is currently available in most vitamin supplements.

Using a preclinical mouse model, scientists at the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute investigated the effect of vitamin B3 on developing embryos. The results were astounding.

Before vitamin B3 was introduced into the mother’s diet, embryos were either lost through miscarriage or the offspring were born with a range of severe birth defects. After the dietary change, both the miscarriages and birth defects were completely prevented, with all the offspring born perfectly healthy.

This discovery is akin to the revolutionary breakthrough made last century that confirmed folic acid supplementation can prevent spina bifida and other neural tube defects in babies. As a result, consumption of folic acid has been adopted by expectant mothers worldwide, and the addition of folate to our food supply has led to a 70% decrease in the number of babies born with neural tube defects.

According to the Executive Director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Professor Robert Graham, the implications are profound.

Professor Dunwoodie and her team at Embryology Laboratory

“Just like we now use folate to prevent spina bifida, Professor Dunwoodie’s research could change the way pregnant women are cared for around the world,” said Professor Graham.

“We believe that this breakthrough will be one of our country’s greatest medical discoveries. It’s extremely rare to discover the problem and provide a potential preventive solution at the same time. It’s actually a double breakthrough,” said Professor Graham.

The next step will be to develop a diagnostic test to measure NAD levels. This will enable doctors to identify those women who are at the greatest risk of having a baby with a birth defect.

The findings have been released today by the New England Journal of Medicine – the most prestigious clinical research publication in the world.

This study would not have been possible without the generous support of the Chain Reaction Foundation, the Key Foundation, and the National Health and Medical Research Council.



1. Baker H, DeAngelis B, Holland B, Gittens-Williams L, Barrett T Jr. Vitamin Profile of 563 Gravidas during Trimesters of Pregnancy. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 2002;21(1):33–7.

-- ENDS --

For all media enquiries and interview requests, please contact:

Julia Timms
Head, Media & Communications
0457 517 355

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years