United States: Doctors believe they have discovered a new condition in newborns exposed to fentanyl while in the womb, according to recent research. All the babies were born with cleft palates and extremely tiny skulls, and their moms admitted to using fentanyl and other narcotics while pregnant.
Six newborns exposed to the problem were discovered at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware, two in California, and one each in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Erin Wadman, a genetic counselor at Nemours, and her colleagues recently published their findings in the journal Genetics in Medicine Open.
Wadman was approached in the instance of a baby born with birth abnormalities in August 2022, and he discovered a possible unique condition.
“I was sitting there in the appointment, and I was just like, this face looks so familiar. This story sounds so familiar. And I was just thinking about how this patient reminded me so much of a patient I’d seen earlier in the year and then other patients I’d seen,” Wadman told NBC News. “That’s when we were like, we think we might have stumbled on something really big here.”
The ten newborns also had extremely tiny bodies and droopy eyelashes. According to the researchers, their noses tended to curve upward, and their lower jaws were frequently small. Two of their middle toes were webbed, and their feet pointed down and inward.
Baby boys had genital abnormalities. Some had difficulty eating since their thumbs were not completely grown. Wadman and her colleagues initially considered the Smith-Lemli-Opitz syndrome, in which genetic abnormalities impair how foetuses metabolize cholesterol.
Because none of the newborns had the variation, physicians began to wonder if fentanyl was causing comparable abnormalities in cholesterol metabolism during pregnancy.
“Although fentanyl’s effect on cholesterol metabolism has not been directly tested, based on indirect evidence, it is biologically plausible that it affects cholesterol metabolism in the developing fetus,” the authors wrote in the new report.
Nonetheless, Wadman stated that much more research is required to corroborate the findings.
More research, experts agreed, is needed.
The women in the research were “…taking many drugs,” according to Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “It’s very hard to determine if is this just the effect of fentanyl or is this really the effects of other drugs or other combinations?”
“Having said that, reports like this one are very important because they shed light on issues that we need to investigate systematically,” Volkow added.
The fentanyl-cholesterol theory will also be explored by researchers from the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC), NBC News reported.
Dr. Karoly Mirnics, director of UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute, told NBC News that her research has focused on the effects of several medicines on cholesterol metabolism.
Cholesterol is “essential for everything in your body, for every cell membrane, for every function,” according to Mirnics. “If there is no cholesterol, there is no life.”
“This is concerning,” March of Dimes President Dr. Elizabeth Cherot told NBC News. “As we see these shared characteristics identified, we may be unroofing a real syndrome.”
Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a medical geneticist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, applauded Nemours’ “astute clinicians” for spotting what might be a significant trend.
“This is how fetal alcohol syndrome was identified.” That’s how isotretinoin [acne medicine Accutane] was identified as causing a specific pattern of birth malformations,” said Rasmussen, who was among the first to characterize Zika-related birth problems while working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.