Special delivery – keeping preterm babies healthy

By Rob Clancy, staff writer

When baby Max arrived – early and in a hurry – no-one realised he would play a vital part in keeping other preterm babies healthy in the future.

Suzana tells her story on the safe arrival of baby Max and praises Hudson Institute researchers keeping preterm babies healthy.
Insert image | Baby Max at 8 weeks about to go home
Feature image | Baby Max at 5 months old with mother Susana

The morning after her obstetrician advised her to monitor symptoms and any sudden changes, Max’s mother Susana gave birth at just 27 weeks and three days. 

“We knew the odds for a baby born so early – it was very daunting,” Susana said.

Supporting preterm research 

Susanna was aware of the dangers to vital organs such as lung, heart, gut and brain. So, when doctors in Monash Children’s Hospital’s neonatal unit asked if she would like her newborn son to be the first participant in a trial of a new treatment to prevent those issues and keep preterm babies healthy, she readily agreed.

“It just felt right to us.”

“We’re very proud that, out of such a dark time for our family, we also did something good,” she said.

The trial involved the drug anakinra to prevent dangerous inflammation. This drug has been used successfully for the past 20 years to treat severe inflammatory diseases, but this is the first time it has been used in preterm newborns, and the results are promising.

This is just one of several areas of research showing great promise under the guidance of a team led by Professors Marcel and Claudia Nold. 

Progress for preterm birth research 

This year, the team published a significant study in the journal Science Translational Medicine, identifying that a particular type of inflammation drives lung and heart disease in preterm babies.

Professors Marcel and Claudia Nold are keeping preterm babies healthy with further research involving medical trials at Hudson Institute.
L–R: Professors Marcel Nold and Claudia Nold

“This new knowledge allows us to work on ways to control inflammation in preterm babies and prevent lifelong health problems,” Prof Marcel Nold said.

The team’s work identified the specific inflammatory responses that can cause lung and heart disease, and pointed to risk factors that obstetricians and paediatricians should avoid.

“With some existing treatments, we have identified the specific mechanisms by which they make a difference, while for others, we’ve found that just delaying their use can have a significant benefit for preterm babies,” he said.

The work of this husband-and-wife team is leading to changes in the way the youngest babies are managed in the days and weeks before and after birth.

Professor Claudia Nold says their work also validates several current practices. “We know that giving the mother magnesium sulphate and glucocorticoids before birth helps protect and keep preterm babies healthy, but since our study we better understand the mechanisms by which they work.”

Leading changes keeping preterm babies healthy 

Because early-life disease often leads to lifelong health issues, the Nolds’ ultimate goal is to prevent preterm babies developing ongoing conditions. Understanding how the damage occurs is a huge step in that direction.

As for baby Max, he’s showing every sign of being a happy, healthy young boy, with a pair of proud and relieved parents.

“I never thought I’d be in a position to be part of a medical research trial, but I’m proud that we did – we’ve brought some good to the world,” Susana said.

Baby Jack update

Baby Jack's progress update as researchers at Hudson Institute work on keeping preterm babies healthy.
Baby Jack and mother Dani

You may remember baby Jack from our Hudson News Summer 2021 edition. Jack was born premature at just 24 weeks and endured several setbacks in his first two months, including being put on a ventilator when seizures prevented his breathing. He was also at risk for BPD and cerebral palsy. 

We are very happy to share a positive update from his parents. He was discharged by his medical team some time ago, and recently celebrated his first birthday. He is starting to say words like ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and absolutely loves food. His parents are working with a physio on his fine motor skills and overall development. 

Preterm baby facts

  • One in 10 Australian babies is born premature.
  • Inflammatory responses in preterm babies can cause permanent damage to the heart, lungs, brain and the blood vessels.
  • Necrotising enterocolitis (NEC) is a disease of the premature gut that can kill up to two thirds of affected babies, and cause grave long-term illness in survivors.
  • Bronchopulmonary Dysplasia (BPD) is the most common chronic lung disease affecting newborn babies. 

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Hudson Institute communications
t: + 61 3 8572 2761
e: communications@hudson.org.au

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