Protecting vulnerable newborn babies from brain damage | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - April 2015

Protecting vulnerable newborn babies from brain damage

Baby Sophie and mumResearchers funded by Action are investigating how a new medicine used in combination with cooling therapy could significantly reduce the risk of brain damage and cerebral palsy.

Natasha wasn’t able to hold her daughter until she was five days old, so cuddles are even more precious now. Baby Sophie was born blue and totally unresponsive due to complications which led to her being starved of oxygen during her birth. Doctors used a revolutionary therapy to reduce the risk of brain damage: her whole body was cooled down.

Natasha remembers: “It was eight hours after birth before I saw Sophie. We couldn’t hold her but we could put a hand on her head and her tummy but not for too long as it warmed her up. Her skin was very cold to the touch.”

In the UK each year, around 1,300 babies develop a life-threatening brain condition due to oxygen shortage at birth. Sadly, many lose their lives or develop serious lifelong disabilities.

 The cooling treatment takes advantage of a therapeutic ‘window’ that occurs after a newborn baby suffers oxygen shortage. By cooling the body to reduce brain temperature, doctors can alter the chemical processes that lead to brain damage. The baby is cooled then gradually warmed again.

“Sophie was cooled for 72 hours which doesn’t sound like a long time but watching your poorly baby for that time, who is totally unresponsive, and being unable to cuddle her, makes it feel like forever,” says Natasha. “When they warmed her up it was like she was just coming alive.”

Thankfully, Sophie, who is now four, has made excellent progress. “She’s at nursery for 15 hours a week and loves it. We’ve just had her first parents’ evening and she’s on par with all her peers,” Natasha reports.

Action Medical Research has invested around £1.2 million during the last 25 years into key projects that have helped to develop and improve cooling as a breakthrough therapy for babies. Sadly, around 40 per cent of babies treated with this pioneering therapy still experience brain injury, so more research is urgently needed.

Professor Nikki Robertson and her team, based at King’s College London, were awarded a grant of almost £200,000 in 2014 to carry out further research. The team hopes to establish the safe dose of a magnesium-based medicine which can be used with cooling. Professor Robertson also aims to establish whether the two treatments used together offer better brain protection than cooling alone.

These types of medicines are inexpensive and widely available, and levels within the body can easily be measured. Professor Robertson says: “If this study shows that magnesium in combination with cooling is safe and effective, a clinical trial in babies could be underway quite soon.”

This in turn could lead to a significant reduction in the risk of brain damage or cerebral palsy in babies who, like Sophie, experience a lack of oxygen at birth.

Arun Estates have generously supported this project.

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