Vitamin D may have more far-reaching implications for pregnant women than we have fully understood. New research suggests that the presence of vitamin D in the umbilical cord could play a role in preventing the development of blood-related disorders later in the life of the child.

Vitamin D deficiency is a global health issue. An estimated billion people worldwide do not have adequate levels of the vitamin, and the effects are especially devastating to children who are born with a severe deficiency. They often develop rickets, a bone disorder, or a variety of blood-related issues like anemia and low platelets.

Inadequate levels of vitamin D can change how stem cells are formed as well as how the cells multiply and stay alive.

Researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard University had been studying vitamin D biology in zebrafish embryos when they tested human umbilical cord blood samples. They found that in blood samples without the vitamin the formation of stem cells was reduced.

A stem cell can transform itself into a variety of different cells. When stem cells divide, they can remain stem cells or they can become another more specialized type of cell, like a brain cell or a red blood cell. Stem cells also serve as repair mechanisms, dividing as required to replenish other cells needed by the body.

A vitamin D deficiency is usually associated with the development and maintenance of bones, but this study found the vitamin affects development much earlier — in that blood stem cells respond directly to the presence of the vitamin. Inadequate levels of vitamin D can change how stem cells are formed as well as how the cells multiply and stay alive. The impact vitamin D had so early in life was surprising, according to researcher, Trista North, and could affect a person's vulnerability to blood disorders later in life.

The team plans to continue this research to see how the nutrient may affect other vital processes that occur during embryonic development. “I think when people start to look at other organ systems and stem cell populations, it will be interesting to know if doctors start to recommend anything to help with vitamin D levels in pregnant mothers. This study was just scratching the surface, and there will be a whole lot more to follow up,” North said in a statement.

The study is published in Cell Reports.