Fentanyl has unfortunately found its next victims — newborn babies, according to a study.
At least 10 babies, and perhaps more than 12, are thought to be suffering from birth defects related to fentanyl exposure in the womb, EuroJournal reported.
The findings, published in Genetics in Medicine Open, said six babies were identified at Nemours Children’s Health in Wilmington, Delaware; two in California; one in Rhode Island and another in Massachusetts.
The babies are suffering from physical defects including a cleft palate, unusually small bodies and heads, drooping eyelids and upturned noses, as well as undersized lower jaws.
Additionally, their feet point down and inward, and two of their toes are webbed. Geneticists said they ruled out a genetic cause, specifically a genetic variant called Smith-Lemli-Optitz.
The one thing the babies had in common was that their moms admitted to using street drugs, including fentanyl.
“No common genetic or genomic abnormality was identified, but prenatal fentanyl exposure was shared among the pregnancies,” said researchers from Nemours Children’s Hospital, who authored the study.
While the babies do not have the Smith-Lemli-Optitz variant, their defects were similar to those with the variant.
Nemours’ Dr. Karen Gripp, a geneticist, and Erin Wadman, a genetic counselor, believe that fentanyl might also be disrupting 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 said.
The babies tested positive for fentanyl at birth and were most likely exposed to it during the pregnancy.
Wadman was first able to link all the pregnancies with possible fentanyl exposure in August 2022, after seeing a baby with birth defects that reminded her of other patients she’d seen.
“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 EuroJournal.
“That’s when we were, like, we think we might have stumbled on something really big here.”
However, they have yet to confirm their findings. Wadman said that it’s possible the fentanyl is laced with something else that’s causing the defects, or that the mothers were also taking other street drugs.
Even the mosquito-born illness Zika could lead to some of the defects, like a small head, though there’s no evidence to suggest that Zika played a role.
Researchers think they’re onto something, but they still need to do more studies.
Experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha believe they may soon be able to determine the validity of the fentanyl theory.
Dr. Karoly Mirnics, the director of UNMC’s Munroe-Meyer Institute, is studying the impact of certain drugs on cholesterol metabolism. She plans to look at the blood of the babies identified in the Nemours study.
Fentanyl — whether it’s causing birth defects or not — has led to an alarming increase in overdose deaths.
The powerful opioid painkiller was the suspected cause of 70,601 overdose deaths in 2021, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered. Fentanyl is everywhere. From large metropolitan areas to rural America, no community is safe from this poison,” Drug Enforcement Agency Administrator Anne Milgram said on the DEA’s website.
“We must take every opportunity to spread the word to prevent fentanyl-related overdose death and poisonings from claiming scores of American lives every day.”