A $3 million grant will provide funding for MUSC physician researchers to learn more about vitamin D's effect on maternal health and fetal development during pregnancy to be able to provide public policy recommendations about vitamin D supplementation.
The grant, from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Battle Creek, Mich., will allow MUSC Children's Hospital faculty researchers to continue their research into preventing vitamin D deficiency and the subsequent health effects in some pregnant women, further exploring how to eliminate those deficiencies.
Currently, the United States presents a large racial disparity in vitamin D status. Compared to white women, black women have a 20-fold greater risk of deficiency and Hispanic women a 2.4-fold greater risk of deficiency.
In South Carolina, MUSC Children's Hospital researchers have already discovered that the situation is more pronounced with about 70 percent of black women, 33 percent of Hispanic women and 12 percent of white pregnant women meeting the Institute of Medicine's 2010 definition of vitamin D deficiency.
According to the recent research, vitamin D deficiencies are on the rise across all ethnicities, but particularly in pregnant, non-white women.
"Such disparity on the basis of race represents a serious public health issue," said Carol Wagner, M.D., MUSC Children's Hospital neonatologist and project director. "This project will generate supportive data for supplementing all pregnant women with vitamin D at doses that enhance immune balance and regulation."
With the knowledge that Wagner and her colleagues expect to gain from this research, she anticipates not only learning more about vitamin D's role in a mother's immune system and the problems created by deficiency, but also how deficiency might influence other poor pregnancy outcomes.
Rita Ryan, M.D., Children's Hospital Department of Pediatrics chair, said the funding comes at a good time. "We are so thrilled to have this research funding for Dr. Wagner because this work will increase our understanding of how the vitamin D a mother takes in during pregnancy affects the well-being of her baby. It offers a potentially easy intervention to improve things such as infection of the fetus and mother, and also premature delivery. Both of these are problems that can cause later abnormalities in the infant's brain development so treatment with vitamin D could have a really important effect on later neurologic impairment in children."
Wagner envisions the findings in the study enhancing pregnant women's and health care providers' knowledge of vitamin D deficiency and its effects, as well as offering the incentive needed to form the partnerships with policy makers at the local, state and federal levels needed to change disparate pregnancy outcomes in South Carolina and beyond.
"By focusing on immune system imbalance associated with vitamin D deficiency, we expect to show improvement in various pregnancy outcomes," Wagner said. "By the end of the study, we plan to be able to advise pregnant women on the optimal vitamin D intake during pregnancy, benefiting the health of mother and baby. I look forward to reducing this growing disparity that has plagued us for decades."