Vitamin B12 is vital to keep a nervous system healthy. Since it is found mainly in meat and dairy, it is common for people to associate B12 deficiency with vegans, who are aware of this issue (in Germany there's even a B12-enriched toothpaste) and often take measures to supplement. In fact, it is the general population of developing countries who are more likely to lack B12, and it is primarily for them that a team of Canadian researchers has developed a simple, cheap B12 test kit.

Yvonne Lamers, a professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia, and her team tried their new method on 94 healthy young women in Vancouver. A finger prick is all it takes to collect a sample of blood for the analysis. The blood is then blotted and dried overnight on a card made of filter paper. A disk of the dried blood spot is punched out of the filter paper and then undergoes two extraction steps, also known as clean-up procedures, to isolate the compound of interest.

Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry is used to measure the amount of methylmalonic acid (MMA) in the compound, an indicator of a person’s B12 level. The research team says the test is sensitive enough for most people, even newborn babies.

This is the first dried blood spot analysis that can detect B12 levels in a person. The method is currently being tried out in a research project in rural Indonesia. In developing countries, deficiency can be as high as 80 percent. In Canada, where the research was carried out, the figures go down to five percent of adults, while 20 percent are marginally B12-sufficient. Treatment includes injections, supplements and dietary adaptations.

Other possible beneficiaries of the tests are newborn infants. British Columbia runs the NewBorn Screening Program, which screens all infants born in the region for treatable disorders. With the new test kit, healthcare providers could also test babies for B12 deficiency, which can slow down brain development and learning, and cause digestion problems if not detected and treated early.

More details of the study appeared in the August issue of the Journal of Nutrition.

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