Scientists based in Cork have engineered a process for the early detection of birth-related brain injury, which affects hundreds of babies in Ireland every year.
Their work, based on genetic changes to umbilical cord blood that occur when a newborn is deprived of oxygen, is likely to enable earlier treatment that reduces the impact and severity of the damage to the brain.
Almost 200 babies a year suffer lack of oxygen to the brain during birth, resulting in death or disability. Birth-related injuries accounted for most of the €450 million paid out by the HSE in compensation claims over the last five years, and sadly the number of cases are rising.
Researchers at Cork’s Infant Centre have identified two biochemical signals that can be used in the detection of such injuries. These blood biomarkers found in the umbilical cord could provide an early detection system for the condition, known as Hypoxic Ischaematic Encephalopathy (HIE), which is a type of brain damage that occurs when an infant’s brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen and blood.
Early intervention is critical as brain cooling therapy can reduce brain injury and improve outcomes if started immediately.
Last year, a study showed almost 90 per cent of newborns who underwent brain cooling in Irish hospitals survived. A total of 140 infants received the therapy over a two-year period.
The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Neurology, focused on the involvement of two microRNAs in HIE. MicroRNAs are small strands of genetic code that can control gene expression and protein production in cells throughout the body.
Infant researchers found them to be abundant in umbilical cord blood, but significantly decreased in newborns suffering oxygen starvation.
They may provide the first clue that significant injury has occurred and help doctors to decide which infants to transfer to a cooling centre for treatment.
Consultant paediatrician Professor Deirdre Murray, who led the research involving 170 newborn babies from Ireland and Sweden, described the results as very promising. “In two different cohorts, across two countries we are seeing the same patterns. The next task will be automating this analysis so that it can be done rapidly at the cotside.”
The study was funded by the Health Research Board and the National Children’s Research Centre and is the result of almost 10 years of research in the area of early brain injury.
The Infant Centre, which is dedicated to foetal and neonatal research, is based at University College Cork and Cork University Maternity Hospital. The team at the INFANT centre have said their work is not finished yet and will go on.