Boosting babies’ chances | Action Medical Research

Boosting babies’ chances

23 January 2001
New research could offer fresh hope for premature babies who suffer from potentially fatal infections, thanks to leading medical charity Action Research. Experts at London’s Hammersmith Hospital will investigate whether a new treatment will help prevent an over-zealous inflammatory response in newborns. The study could potentially reduce hundreds of tragic deaths each year. Leading the team are Professor Irene Roberts and Dr Neil Murray, of the Departments of Haematology and Paediatrics respectively, at Hammersmith’s Imperial College School of Medicine (ICSM). Professor Roberts says: ‘Infection is one of the biggest problems we face in caring for premature babies. We hope that a greater understanding of the reasons for this will help develop new approaches to monitoring and treatment.’ Late onset infection and another serious disease known as necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) continue to be the most devastating complications seen in babies in the modern neonatal intensive care unit. As many as a quarter of all preterm babies develop infection during their stay in the neonatal unit with up to 20% of them dying - two to three times that seen in premature babies who are infection free. Similarly, NEC is also a serious disease, characterised by varying degrees of necrosis (cell death) of the bowel. This condition affects almost one in 10 babies in neonatal units and results in the death of one or two in every five of those affected. Although the causes of infection and NEC differ, they both produce an inflammatory response, which can prove fatal. ‘Once an inflammatory response kicks in, the body releases regulatory molecules to combat it. But in some situations babies’ immature immune systems may run out of control and the response is not ‘turned off’’, says Professor Roberts. ‘This systematic inflammatory response syndrome can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and often death.’ Action Research, which is famous for helping develop the UK’s first polio and rubella vaccine and developing the medical use of ultrasound, has awarded more than £52,000 to study a new drug called Interleukin-11 (IL-11). With previous Action Research funding, the researchers have already shown that IL-11 stimulates a baby’s body to make more platelets - minute blood ‘cells’ which prevent bleeding. Trials of the drug in adults have also shown that it can help sufferers of inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease. The research team now hopes to assess whether IL-11 has the potential to be a very useful new drug for treating babies with the combination of infection, inflammation and lack of platelets. John Grounds, Action Research director of communications, adds: ‘This project is one important example of the charity’s commitment to helping disease and disability in the thousands of babies born with complications each year. We are currently funding a number of studies into the causes and prevention of premature birth, and the care of these vulnerable and tiny patients.’ Action Research launched its Touching Lives Campaign in early 2000, which aims to raise £1.5m for vital medical research to benefit children and families across the UK. Visit the website at For further information, please contact Nicole Duckworth in the Action Research press office on 01403 327403 Fax: 01403 210541, or email
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