Every year 7.9 million babies are born with a birth defect worldwide. In the vast majority of cases the cause of these problems has remained a mystery.
Scientists at Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute in Australia demonstrated a remarkably simple cure, in the form of a common dietary supplement.
This historic discovery, believed to be among Australia's greatest ever medical breakthroughs, is expected to change the way pregnant women are cared for around the globe.
Led by Professor Sally Dunwoodie from the Victor Chang Institute, researchers identified a major cause of miscarriages as well as heart, spinal, kidney and cleft palate problems in newborn babies.
"The ramifications are likely to be huge. This has the potential to significantly reduce the number of miscarriages and birth defects around the world," said Dunwoodie.
The study found that a deficiency in a vital molecule, known as Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD), prevents a baby's organs from developing correctly in the womb.
NAD is one of the most important molecules in all living cells. Its synthesis is essential for energy production, DNA repair and cell communication.
Environmental and genetic factors can disrupt its production, which causes a NAD deficiency.
Researchers found that this deficiency is particularly harmful during a pregnancy as it cripples an embryo when it is forming.
"Now, after 12 years of research, our team has also discovered that this deficiency can be cured and miscarriages and birth defects prevented by taking a common vitamin," said Dunwoodie.
Scientists discovered that simply boosting levels of dietary supplement vitamin B3 during pregnancy can prevent 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, despite taking vitamin supplements at least a third of pregnant women 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 per cent of pregnant women. This indicates pregnant women may require more vitamin B3 than is currently available in most vitamin supplements.
Using a preclinical model, scientists investigated the effect of vitamin B3 on developing embryos.
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.
"It's extremely rare to discover the problem and provide a preventive solution at the same time. It's actually a double breakthrough," said Robert Graham, Executive Director of the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute.