Putting children first | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - March 2009

Putting children first

More than 30 cutting-edge projects are underway, tackling problems affecting pregnancy, babies, children and adolescents. But while the focus is on the young, the understanding gained may benefit people of all ages. For example, we’re funding studies searching for better ways to help children with conditions such as stroke and inflammatory muscle disease, but the knowledge secured could also help older people with related conditions.

On top of this, better health in the early years can have knock-on benefits for health later in life. Here are some of the ways the research we’re currently funding is working towards the wellbeing of babies, children and their families.

##Giving babies a better start in life

Our Touching Tiny Lives appeal continues to play an integral role in our research strategy.

**Tackling pregnancy complications**

A baby’s vigorous growth in the womb is fundamental for its health, and a number of our projects are addressing complications that can affect this development. Two are investigating fetal growth restriction by examining the role of blood flow in the placenta. Another is looking at thyroid disorders in the mother, which can be associated with poor growth and mental development of the child, while a separate project is studying teenage mothers to examine how their own growth and diet may contribute to restricted growth of their child. Healthy development of the brain is particularly crucial, and one project is using novel methods of fetal MRI scanning to study brain development and improve diagnosis of abnormalities.

Conditions affecting pregnant women can also put babies at risk, like the liver disease obstetric cholestasis. Our researchers are investigating how this condition could affect the baby’s heart, with a view to preventing stillbirths.

**Preventing premature birth**

Every year in the UK, an estimated 50,000 babies are born prematurely, increasing their risk of short and long-term health problems. Action Medical Research-funded projects are examining how the contraction of the uterus is regulated during labour and the roles certain proteins play in this. They will also look at the potential of candidate drugs for preventing early labour.

Two studies are scrutinising the role of infection and inflammation in premature birth. We know that some women who go into early labour have infection in the womb, so these projects are investigating if this is a cause of premature labour and whether treating this could prevent premature birth.

**Improving care for sick babies**

Action Medical Research has supported many studies to improve care of sick or weak babies. Current studies are researching treatments for hydrocephalus and brain haemorrhage in premature babies. Another project is hoping to improve management of congenital diaphragmatic hernia – an abnormality occurring during development in the womb. Separate research is evaluating the benefits and risks of starting milk feeds early or late for premature babies.

A new study aims to help both baby and mother at birth by investigating drugs that could protect the baby from brain injury while relieving the woman’s pain during labour. Our researchers are also working to improve diagnosis of conditions affecting babies, such as bronchiolitis and adrenal gland disorders. Others are building new technologies, such as an electronic ‘hands-free’ device to measure a newborn’s heart rate during resuscitation.

##Stopping suffering in children

**Developing children’s potential**

Children should be given the opportunity to reach their full potential. For those with medical conditions or disabilities, research can help this happen. Action Medical Research studies are investigating genetic factors associated with learning disability and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This could help improve management of these conditions and contribute to clinical genetics services.

Physical disability can also hold children back and our researchers are developing comfortable yet functional seating for children who suffer spasms, such as those that can occur with some forms of cerebral palsy. Another project is using brain imaging and language tests to study how a stroke around the time of birth affects children’s language development.

**Preventing infections**

Infections can strike people at any age and sometimes children are particularly at risk. Meningitis and septicaemia, for example, can be caused by the bacterium Neisseria meningitides, which kills more children in the UK than any other infection. One of our researchers is studying this bacterium to aid future design of a safe, effective vaccine. Another project is investigating whether infection by a virus called respiratory syncytial virus increases the chances of a child developing pneumonia.

**Taking on rare conditions**

Some diseases are uncommon, but very distressing for the families involved. Scientists funded by us are hunting for the genes causing two serious childhood brain diseases,West’s syndrome and MRST, as well as for those causing inherited microcephaly, in which people are born with an abnormally small head and poor brain development. Our researchers are also working on new treatments, for example, metabolic ‘storage’ diseases, which cause a relentless deterioration in physical and mental abilities. In addition, charity-funded researchers are testing a new tool to score the severity of juvenile dermatomyositis, an inflammatory muscle disease, to help children get the most appropriate treatment sooner.

With all of these exciting projects underway, and many more to come, we’re confident that, with your support, we are helping more children to grow up healthy.

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