Despite all the wonderful advances with increased survival of premature babies over the last three decades, children who do survive remain at high risk of disability.
Babies like Essie, born 12 weeks premature, have 40 times the risk of developing cerebral palsy—an incurable condition which often results in life-long physical and mental impairment and can have a devastating impact on children and their families. And the earlier a baby is born the higher the risk.
Very premature babies are at higher risk of experiencing developmental behavioural problems, with many requiring specialist educational support. This leads to a large cost both socially and economically and it also places an extensive burden on the families of these children.
But there is hope thanks to Mater researcher Associate Professor Paul Dawson and Dr Elizabeth Hurrion who are running a study—the first of its kind in the world—to correlate nutrient sulphate levels with developmental outcomes in pre-term infants.
Magnesium sulphate is a relatively new treatment given to mothers immediately before premature delivery, which has been shown to reduce the risks of cerebral palsy. However this treatment is not available to all babies, particularly those in remote communities or for those women who need to deliver rapidly, so it does not protect all babies from disability.
With the support of wonderful people like you, Assoc Prof Dawson and Dr Hurrion have been able to discover that the nutrient sulphate is crucial for the healthy growth and development of the fetus, and is supplied from mother to baby via the placenta.
So while babies who are born at full-term are able to produce their own sulphate, babies born prematurely have not yet developed the mechanism to do this.
During her pregnancy, Essie’s mum Elke was among 100 mothers and babies who participated in Assoc Prof Dawson and Dr Hurrion's study; and while Essie has recently been diagnosed with mild cerebral palsy, she is a “chatty, happy and incredibly active little girl who loves spending time with her sister Maya jumping on the trampoline and enjoys the beach”, says Elke.
The study aims to determine if a certain blood level of sulphate can be identified which is protective, and the most vulnerable babies for sulphate deficiency can be identified, then they may be able to keep blood sulphate at a safe level by administering this nutrient after birth.
This is a world first project developed in house by Mater researchers. Where the current clinical practice is to treat mothers, this project will provide evidence for treating the babies to reduce the risk of cerebral palsy and other adverse neurodevelopmental consequences of premature birth.
To think that one in 16 premature babies face life-long physical and mental impairment, Elke tells us why she was so keen to take part in the research project.
“There is no way Essie would have survived without the care that she received at Mater, so I wanted to give back where I could, and the best way for me to do that was through research.”
Assoc Prof Dawson and his team are hopeful that the path they have embarked upon will ultimately lead to a simple, affordable treatment to help protect vulnerable babies from disability, and reduce the impact of cerebral palsy.
Without amazing supporters like you, and brave volunteers like Elke and Essie, this research study would never have been possible. But this ground-breaking research has only just started.
It is only through the continuation of research that doctors can improve the odds for babies born prematurely.