Vitamin A deficit in the womb hurts immune development

Pregnant mice low on the nutrient have young with undersized immune organs

Adequate vitamin A intake during pregnancy is needed for offspring to fully develop an immune system and fend off disease, researchers working with mice report March 19 in Nature.

Vitamin A is plentiful in egg yolks, fish, carrots, yellow sweet potatoes, spinach, butternut squash and other foods. Retinoic acid, a metabolite of vitamin A that the body uses, is known for maintaining vision, skin health and basic cell functions. It also guides immune function.

Henrique Veiga-Fernandes of the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, Portugal, and colleagues add to this résumé by showing that formation of certain immune organs in fetal mice depends on specific cells controlled by retinoic acid. Mice that lack adequate retinoic acid while in utero grow up to have weaker immune responses and undersized lymph nodes in adulthood, the scientists find. Lymph nodes are considered secondary lymphoid organs, a group that includes tonsils, spleen and adenoids. These organs serve as staging areas where immune cells get activated against disease and infection.

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