Inhaled pain relieving drugs have power to protect babies from brain damage during birth | Action Medical Research

Inhaled pain relieving drugs have power to protect babies from brain damage during birth

17 May 2012

A unique study funded by children’s charity Action Medical Research has discovered that a combination of anaesthetics, not only prevent labour pains, but might also protect babies from brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen during birth.

The remarkable results discovered by a research team at Imperial College London, have been published in the online journal PLoS ONE.*

Lead researcher, Dr Daqing Ma, said: “Nobody has reported so far on anaesthetics reducing labour pain and protecting the baby’s brain. This is a remarkable finding for us and we hope to take it further, from bench to bedside.”

The researchers at Imperial had already discovered preliminary evidence to suggest that xenon and sevoflurane might be able to protect babies’ brains from the damage caused by birth asphyxia. Both of these anaesthetics are already being used safely to provide pain relief in other circumstances.

When a baby is deprived of oxygen around the time of birth – birth asphyxia – it can lead to brain damage and devastating, lifelong conditions including cerebral palsy, learning disabilities and epilepsy.1 Other organs can also be damaged and some babies are stillborn.

Many different factors can lead to birth asphyxia, including high or low blood pressure in the mother, problems with the placenta, compression of the umbilical cord and breathing difficulties in a newborn baby. Sometimes the cause remains unknown.

There is currently no preventative treatment for the condition and attempts to treat the consequences of it have been largely ineffective, although cooling the baby after birth can sometimes bring benefits. Action Medical Research contributed to the development of the groundbreaking cooling therapy (therapeutic hypothermia), now being adopted in UK hospitals following NICE guidance in 2010.2

A grant from children’s charity Action Medical Research was used by the researchers to carry out a further two year study to test their theory, which has now been shown to work in a laboratory model – the next step is to take forward the findings to a clinical trial. If the inhaled anaesthetics, xenon and sevoflurane, prove effective in these trials it is babies who are deprived of oxygen at birth who could be set to benefit.

Dr Caroline Johnston, Research Evaluation Manager from the charity, said: “This is very exciting news. Finding a way to prevent the brain damage caused by birth asphyxia could save babies’ lives and give children, who would otherwise have faced a lifetime of complications, a healthier life. The researchers now believe that giving a pregnant woman the inhaled anaesthetics xenon and sevoflurane during childbirth might help to protect her baby from the consequences of birth asphyxia, while also relieving her labour pains.”

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Dr Daqing Ma is available to interview on Friday 18 May between 11am-5pm. Contact Toni Slater in the first instance, see contact details below.

* Xenon and Sevoflurane provide Analgesia during Labor and Fetal Brain Protection in a Perinatal Rat Model of Hypoxia-Ischemia. Ma D, Yang T, Rei Fidalgo AM, et al. PLoS ONE. 17 May 2012.

1. CMACE, Perinatal mortality 2008, London 2010.

For further information please contat:
Toni Slater, Interim Communications Manager
T: 01403 327478

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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.

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