Press release

60 years of charity’s research investment in Northern Ireland:from vaccines to ‘microneedles’

11 December 2012

Children’s charity Action Medical Research is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year by marking their contribution to medical innovation in Northern Ireland.

The charity started life as the National Fund for Poliomyelitis Research in 1952. During the 1950s and 1960s the charity supported research by Professor George Dick at Queen’s University Belfast; some of the most important work on polio vaccines during that time. This research helped pave the way for the oral ‘sugar cube’ vaccine, introduced in 1962 in the UK, which has kept millions of children safe from the deadly virus.

Funding in Northern Ireland is ongoing with several projects helping save and change children’s lives currently taking place in Belfast.

Avoiding painful blood tests for babies
Research is being funded to fine-tune new technology which could spare vulnerable babies from painful blood tests. The ‘heel-prick test’ – which can be painful and cause bruising and scarring – is currently used to monitor drug levels in their tiny bodies. An amazing new technique uses a small patch covered by many hundreds of tiny microneedles, puncturing the skin without causing pain or bleeding. Dr Ryan Donnelly is leading the research at Queen’s University Belfast.

Saving babies’ sight
Babies born very prematurely are most at risk of retinopathy of prematurity; a major cause of vision loss in young children.1,2 Existing treatment can save babies’ central vision, but at the expense of permanent damage to their peripheral and night vision.

In separate projects, teams at Queen’s are investigating the potential of alternative treatments: vascular stem cells from babies’ own umbilical cords to repair damage, and naturally occurring substances that encourage normal growth of the delicate blood vessels that supply the retina.

Helping prevent stillbirth
Tragically, around 4,000 babies are stillborn each year in the UK.3 With charity funding, researchers at the Royal Jubilee Maternity Hospital in Belfast are developing a high-tech, new fetal surveillance system. The hope is this sophisticated surveillance of the womb will help prevent stillbirth by alerting doctors when a baby’s life is at risk.

Previous successes include:

Improving guidelines for drug treatment in children
A team, headed by Queen's University Belfast developed a system to address the issue of prescribing drugs for children which was based on scaled down adult doses. Action Medical Research funded this research which drove the 2,000 ‘Children are not little adults’ campaign, to helping significant progress to be made the UK in testing drugs for children..

Checking the safety of steroid use in newborn babies
Steroids were introduced to treat chronic lung disease (CLD) in premature babies in the 1980s; to reduce time on a ventilator and, if given soon after birth, reduce the chances of developing CLD. During the 1990s and early 2000s, with funding from the charity, a team at Queen’s University and the Royal Maternity Hospital in Belfast conducted research into potential long-term side effects. Based on this, clinical guidelines now advise against giving steroids early. They are given later, in a lower dose, in babies with severe CLD who are dependent on a ventilator to breathe.

Helping bone fractures heal
A team at Queen’s also looked at ways to improve bone healing in two Action Medical Research funded studies. The first in the late 1990s showed that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), often used for pain relief, can slow down repair by dampening down normal, healing inflammatory processes. The second in 2002 investigated the possibilities of a pioneering new therapy involving the injection of bone-forming cells into the fracture site to form bone.

Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) have since developed a new method of repairing bone using synthetic bone graft substitute material.4 When combined with gene therapy this can mimic real bone tissue and has potential to regenerate bone in patients who have lost large areas of bone from either disease or trauma.

Still more to do
Although the charity has helped save and change so many children’s lives, there is still much more to learn about what triggers diseases, how to prevent them and how to develop effective new treatments and find the best ways to care for sick babies and children.

Action Medical Research’s commitment to helping push the boundaries of medicine in Northern Ireland continues.

Support the work of Action Medical Research and help to raise funds at one of the Charity's events. Overnight PLOD in the Mournes in June, Ladies' Lunch with Margaret Mountford in April or perhaps you fancy taking part in a golf day or a bike ride. For details of all our events please go to www.action.org.uk/ni or contact Jenny Scullion at jscullion@action.org.uk or phone 028 9267 3333.

– ENDS –

References

1. National Eye Institute, National Institutes of Health, USA. Facts about retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). Website accessed 7 January 2011. http://www.nei.nih.gov/health/rop/rop.asp
2. Drack A. Retinopathy of Prematurity. Adv Pediatr 2006; 53:211-26.
3. Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health, Perinatal Mortality 2007, June 2009. http://www.cmace.org.uk/getattachment/1d2c0ebc-d2aa-4131-98ed-56bf8269e5...
4. Curtin CM, Cunniffe GM, Lyons FG, et al. Innovative Collagen Nano-Hydroxyapatite Scaffolds Offer a Highly Efficient Non-Viral Gene Delivery Platform for Stem Cell-Mediated Bone Formation. Advanced Materials, 2012; 24 (6): 749 DOI: 10.1002/adma.201103828

NOTES TO EDITORS:

For further information please contact:
Toni Slater
Communications Manager
T: 01403 327478
E: tslater@action.org.uk
W: action.org.uk

Follow us on Twitter at @actionmedres

Action Medical Research - the leading UK-wide medical research charity dedicated to helping babies and children - is celebrating 60 years of vital research in 2012. We’ve been funding medical breakthroughs since we began in 1952 and have spent more than £100 million on research that has helped save thousands of children’s lives and changed many more.

Today, we continue to find and fund the very best medical research to help stop the suffering of babies and children caused by disease and disability. We want to make a difference in:

  • tackling premature birth and treating sick and vulnerable babies
  • helping children affected by disability, disabling conditions and infections
  • targeting rare diseases that together severely affect many forgotten children.

But there is still so much more to do. Make 2012 a special year and help fund more life-changing research for some of the UK’s sickest babies and children.