Environment and Birth Defects by James Graves Wilson in the US was published in 1973. The book summarized information on the causes of malformations in newborns and aimed to acquaint policy makers with Wilson's suggestions for predicting the risks of environmental causes of birth defects, called teratogens. Wilson also provided six principles for researching teratogens, a framework revised from his 1959 article Experimental Studies on Congenital Malformations. The book has ten chapters. The body of the text is followed by three appendices that contain reference material and photographs of laboratory animals, and reproductive and embryological information.

Teratogens are substances that may produce physical or functional defects in the human embryo or fetus after the pregnant woman is exposed to the substance. Alcohol and cocaine are examples of such substances. Exposure to the teratogen affects the fetus or embryo in a variety of ways, such as the duration of exposure, the amount of teratogenic substance, and the stage of development the embryo or fetus is in during the exposure. Teratogens may affect the embryo or fetus in a number of ways, causing physical malformations, problems in the behavioral or emotional development of the child, and decreased intellectual quotient IQ in the child. Additionally, teratogens may also affect pregnancies and cause complications such as preterm labors, spontaneous abortions, or miscarriages. Teratogens are classified into four types: physical agents, metabolic conditions, infection, and finally, drugs and chemicals.

The concept Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) refers to a set of birth defects that occur in children born to mothers who abused alcohol during pregnancy. The alcohol-induced defects include pre- and post-natal growth deficiencies, minor facial abnormalities, and damage to the developing central nervous system (CNS). FAS is the most serious condition physicians group under the heading of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, which also includes Alcohol-Related Birth Defects, like alcohol-induced congenital cardiac defects that are unrelated to a diagnosis of FAS, and Alcohol-Related Neurodevelopmental Disorders, which occur in the absence of any facial birth defects or growth delays. The severity of birth defects associated with FAS can vary depending on the intensity, duration, and frequency of exposure to alcohol during gestation. In addition to these dose-related concerns, maternal factors such as the mother's genetics or how quickly she metabolizes alcohol, and the timing of exposure during prenatal development also impact alcohol-induced abnormalities. As birth defects and anomalies can arise when pregnant women consume alcohol, alcohol is a teratogen, an environmental agent that negatively impacts the course of normal embryonic or fetal development.

James Graves Wilson's six principles of teratology, published in 1959, guide research on teratogenic agents and their effects on developing organisms. Wilson's six principles were inspired by Gabriel Madeleine Camille Dareste's five principles of experimental teratology published in 1877. Teratology is the study of birth defects, and a teratogen is something that either induces or amplifies abnormal embryonic or fetal development and causes birth defects. Detailed in his 1973 monograph, Environment and Birth Defects, Wilson's principles helped scientists research teratogens experimentally.

Vitamin A (retinol) is an essential vitamin in the daily functioning of human beings that helps regulate cellular differentiation of epithelial tissue. Studies have shown that an excess of vitamin A can affect embryonic development and result in teratogenesis, or the production of birth defects in a developing embryo. Excess intake of vitamin A and retinoids by pregnant women often results malformations to fetuses' skulls, faces, limbs, eyes, central nervous system. Additionally, doctors often use derivatives of vitamin A, known as retinoids, as medicine to treat a number of skin conditions and carcinomas, the most common form of human cancers.

In 1616 in Padua, Italy, Fortunio Liceti, a professor of natural philosophy and medicine, wrote and published the first edition of De Monstruorum Causis, Natura et Differentiis (On the Reasons, Nature, and Differences of Monsters), hereafter De monstruorum. In De monstruorum, Liceti chronologically documented cases of human and animal monsters from antiquity to the seventeenth century. During the seventeenth century, many people considered such monsters as frightening signs of evil cursed by spiritual or supernatural entities. Liceti categorized monsters based on their potential causes, several of which he claimed were unrelated to the supernatural. Historians later noted that some documented monsters were infants with birth defects. In De monstruorum, Liceti elevated the status of monsters to potential subjects of scientific inquiry and provided an early model for the study of birth defects, a field later called teratology.

Michael R. Harrison worked as a pediatric surgeon in the US throughout the late-twentieth century and performed many fetal surgeries, including one of the first successful surgeries on a fetus in utero, or while it is still in its gestational carrier’s body, also called open fetal surgery. A fetus is an organism developing inside of the uterus that is anywhere from eight weeks old to birth. Harrison hypothesized that open fetal surgery could correct developmental defects that may become fatal to the fetus at birth. After years of research, Harrison and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, in San Francisco, California, performed surgery on the fetus of a woman in her seventh month of pregnancy to correct the fetus’s developmental defects. The surgery was successful, as the fetus developed into a healthy child. Harrison’s work led to advancements in fetal treatment techniques, such as a method to conduct open fetal surgery that will not harm the fetus or pregnant woman, as well as the establishment of one of the first fetal treatment centers in the US.

In June 2017, the Iowa Supreme Court decided the case Plowman v. Fort Madison Community Hospital, or Plowman v. FMCH, and ruled that women who gave birth to children with severe disabilities could sue for wrongful birth in Iowa. Specifically, after Plowman v. FMCH, a woman could sue for wrongful birth if she believed that her physicians failed to disclose evidence of fetal abnormalities that may have prompted her to terminate the pregnancy. Pamela and Jeremy Plowman filed the suit against the Fort Madison Community Hospital in Fort Madison, Iowa, alleging that hospital physicians failed to inform them that a prenatal test showed fetal abnormalities. Plowman v. FMCH gave women in Iowa the legal right to sue if physicians failed to tell them about fetal defects.

Thalidomide is a sedative drug introduced to European markets on 1 October 1957 after extensive testing on rodent embryos to ensure its safety. Early laboratory tests in rodent populations showed that pregnant rodents could safely use it, so doctors prescribed Thalidomide to treat morning sickness in pregnant women. However, in humans Thalidomide interfered with embryonic and fetal development in ways not observed in rodent tests. Pregnant women who take Thalidomide are at grater than normal risk for spontaneous abortion and for giving birth to children with developmental anomalies such as shortened, absent, or extra limbs, as well as a variety of heart, ear, and internal organ defects. The failure of rodent models to inform scientists of Thalidomide's teratogenicity in humans ignited debate about the proper use of cross-species testing during drug development.

The article Experimental Studies on Congenital Malformations was published in the Journal of Chronic Diseases in 1959. The author, James G. Wilson, studied embryos and birth defects at the University of Florida Medical School in Gainesville, Florida. In his article, Wilson reviewed experiments on birds and mammals from the previous forty years to provide general principles and guidelines in the study of birth defects and teratogens, which are things that cause birth defects. Those principles included what species are convenient for conducting teratological research, what principles act in human embryological and fetal development, and what agents impact those processes. Wilson's article was one of the first attempts in the twentieth century to synthesize basic research conducted in the field of teratology. The article helped to establish teratology as a field in medicine during the twentieth century.

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