Saving babies one discovery at a time

Posted: May 23, 2012 by ycox in Health, Melbourne
Tags: , , ,

by Yvette Cox

Just one of the millions of preterm babies born around the world

Every year 15 million babies are born preterm. Over one million children die each year due to complications of preterm birth. Researchers at the Ritchie Centre in Melbourne, are now working to better understand the causes and how best to treat preterm infants.

A new report by the World Health Organization lists a number of possible causes of preterm birth. One of these causes is infection and inflammation during pregnancy.

A recent study published by PhD student Jacqueline Melville used a sheep model of inflammation in the uterus to look at the resulting changes to the fetal immune system. She found changes in proportions of different cells within the fetal thymus.

The thymus is an organ of the immune system that is the site of the development and maturation of T cells. T cells recognise ‘non-self’ antigens and work to fight off infections. In her study Jacqueline found a reduction in number of some of these T cells. She says her research could eventually have benefits for mothers and babies.

These changes in T cells could potentially affect the ability of a preterm baby to fight off viruses and activate other arms of the immune system.

PhD student Jacqueline Melville at work at the microscope

Jacqueline’s research is now looking into the effect of treatment with  human amnion epithelial cells (hAECs) on the fetal sheep immune system. hAECs are a type of stem cell that come from the placenta. These cells have the potential to develop into different organs and tissues. Using the same sheep model of inflammation and donated hAECs other researchers at the Ritchie Centre have discovered the benefits of these cells on fetal lungs.

Discovering the potential effects of these cells on the fetal sheep immune system is the next step before they are used in a therapeutic setting. The Ritchie Centre is aiming to develop a clinical trial using hAECs to treat lung diseases and brain injuries caused by preterm birth.

If we know more about these babies, we are better able to treat them.

Jacqueline Melville

Recent achievements from the Ritchie Centre include the storage of umbilical cord tissue and a clinical trial of a treatment for cerebral palsy.

  1. mschneiders says:

    The photo of the preterm baby is so powerful – can see how vulnerable they are. It is interesting what medical developments are occuring, although I wonder whether, as is the case in many areas, the most poor and disadvantaged in the world will have access to emerging treatments. Such stories prompt lots of thinking. Thanks, Mara

    • ycox says:

      If you follow the link to the Born Too Soon report (from WHO) it lists a number of low cost treatments that could be implemented in developing countries.

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