Touching Lives - October 2012
Could a natural antioxidant protect vulnerable premature babies?
Every year in the UK over 60,000 babies are born too early and tragically, around 1,500 babies die. Many complications facing premature babies are believed to be caused by an increase in oxygen levels after birth. Researchers are investigating whether natural antioxidants in a baby’s own body could offer protection.
Although oxygen is essential for life a sudden increase at birth can have devastating consequences, damaging tissues and affecting every part of a baby’s body. It could also be a key factor linked to high rates of death and disability seen in very premature babies, according to Professor Gordon Smith at Cambridge University.
Professor Smith and Dr Stephen Charnock-Jones have spent the last ten years studying how varying oxygen levels affect babies. Their work has focused on damage to the placenta and changes that take place in the circulatory system when breathing begins. The research team is now focusing on two key questions;how do unborn babies normally prepare for life outside the womb, and why can premature babies not cope with an increase in oxygen after birth compared to babies born at full term? Professor Smith thinks the answer could lie in the natural substances produced by a baby’s body in the weeks leading up to birth.
He says: “We have discovered that the levels of a natural protein (PON3) increase as a baby’s due date approaches.Evidence suggests this protein is an antioxidant, protecting babies from the damaging effects of high oxygen levels after birth.”
Professor Smith and Dr Charnock-Jones are now busy assessing if an absence of this protein can worsen the damage caused by increases in oxygen, and whether this could be prevented by treating tissues with synthetic PON3. If their research proves successful, PON3 could play a role in future treatment for premature babies. This project is funded by a generous grant from The Henry Smith Charity.