Offie Soldin: Striving to Prevent a Million Cases of Infant Mental Retardation by Giving Women a Good Prenatal Vitamin
Offie Soldin, PhD, thinks it’s heartbreaking that most pregnant women in the U.S. don’t know that prenatal vitamins with sufficient iodine could prevent a drop of IQ in their babies, and potentially foil neurobehavioral deficits.
And it is unfortunate that many doctors don’t recognize the problem either, says Soldin, an epidemiologist at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center. If they did, more pregnant women would be encouraged to take daily prenatal vitamins with folic acid and iodine, and be tested for hypothyroidism, an insufficient production of thyroid hormone.
Soldin’s research interests are in maternal exposure to toxins that can affect the fetus. For example, she recently demonstrated an association between higher levels of common household pesticides in the urine of children with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer that usually develops in children between the age of 3 and 7. The same pesticide levels were found in the children’s mothers. She has also studied the effects of smoking and therapeutic drugs in pregnancy, which can impact a fetus depending on timing of use and dose.
But her passion is the work she has been doing in maternal hypothyroidism, which she says is clearly linked to deficits in fetal brain development. “Until mid-pregnancy, a fetus is 100 percent dependent on maternal supply of thyroid hormone,” says Soldin, a clinical research scientist who has several masters degrees and a PhD in reproductive immunology. “And thyroid hormone is largely synthesized from dietary iodine.”
Iodine deficiency varies in severity around the world due to differing levels of iodine in soil and food. Globally, two billion individuals are at risk of the condition, Soldin says. Therefore, iodine deficiency is the single greatest preventable cause of mental retardation, she says. “This is more profound in East Asia or Africa, but iodine deficiency is still a problem in most of Europe,” Soldin says. “In the U.S. iodine is found in dairy products, iodized salt, and fish but dietary intake may not be enough.
“Pregnant women don’t often recognize hypothyroidism because they think their tiredness – one of the hallmarks of the condition - comes from pregnancy,” she says. “But there are tests for it, even if they aren’t completely reliable at this point.”
Soldin has published numerous studies on the issue, and organizes meetings to bring researchers together to discuss it – a recent one, “American Thyroid Association 2009 Spring Symposium Thyroid Dysfunction and Pregnancy: Miscarriage, Preterm Delivery and Decreased IQ”, was held in April in Washington D.C. She also is involved in professional task forces on the subject, including one charged with drafting the guidelines on treatment of maternal hypothyroidism. “That will help physicians know how to treat maternal hypothyroidism,” she says. “It’s a great start in handling this issue.”
In her free time, Soldin founded an organization called PregnaTox which she sees as a bridge between clinical science research and care of maternal and fetal health. On the website she flatly states: “Women who are pregnant are not taken care of well enough. Period.”
And she muses about how worldwide fetal health would be improved if only their mothers received 150 milligrams of iodine a day in a prenatal vitamin.
By Renee Twombly, GUMC Communications