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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 March 2005, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
Premature baby research 'stymied'
By Caroline Ryan
BBC News health reporter

premature baby
Babies born early are at high risk of brain damage
Babies at risk of being born early could one day have an 'insurance policy' of stem cells removed in the womb, which could be used to help them.

The cells could be removed in the early weeks of pregnancy and used to replace dead tissue in babies whose brains are affected by being born premature.

Dr Huseiyn Mehmet of Imperial College says research so far is promising.

But experts say it is one of many studies into premature baby care which lacks the money it needs to continue.

It's really important that we do fund this area, from the laboratory bench right up to the bed-side
Dr Huseiyn Mehmet, Imperial College

Around 70,000 babies are born prematurely each year.

An estimated 50% of those born at 25 weeks - instead of the full term of 40 weeks - survive, falling to less than 1% of those born at 22 weeks.

A study published last year showed half of those who survive have some form of disability, with half of those severely affected.

Researchers are looking into what causes babies to be born early, what impact that has on their development, and how those effects can be prevented or reversed.

Brain development is particularly badly affected by premature birth, with 80% of babies born under 30 weeks affected.

This can lead to a number of conditions, ranging from cerebral palsy to ADHD, doctors say.

Removing stress

Dr Mehmet's research team has shown that human foetal stem cells can develop into brain cells when they are implanted into mice while they are in the womb and remain active after the mice are born.

The team now want to carry out research to see if the technique can reverse brain damage in mice - but cannot gain funding for its work.

They hope that, one day, it will be possible to identify pregnancies where there is a risk of premature birth, and extract stem cells from the foetuses during the first three months of development.

Other research is looking at ways of identifying those at risk.

Dr Mehmet said: "We're not thinking about extracting foetal cells from every ongoing pregnancy."

He said he saw "no issue" with taking and storing foetal stem cells to use as treatment.

But he said the team's work had been stymied because it had run out of money.

"It's really important that we do fund this area, from the laboratory bench right up to the bed-side."

Other research teams are looking at whether it will be possible to prevent damage, such as that which causes cerebral palsy, and how the conditions in the womb can be recreated to prevent premature babies being exposed to stresses, such as strong light, which they would not normally have to bear.

'Not on political agenda'

John Wyatt, professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College London, who is following the development of 1,500 babies born prematurely since 1979, said: "There is a mismatch between the extreme public interest in this area, and their concerns, and the amount of research spending going on."

And he said investing in research could have economic, as well as personal, benefits because of the treatment and care costs which would be saved.

"If you could prevent one baby from being brain damaged, you could fund a research project for five to 10 years."

But he said he believed part of the reason the money was not injected was "premature babies are not high up on the political agenda".

A spokesman for the premature baby charity Bliss said: "Funding for research that could subsequently lead to improved outcomes for premature or sick babies must become a priority for the government.

"One in eight babies in the UK are born prematurely each year and may be at risk of suffering serious health problems for the rest of their lives.

"Further research may be able to ensure more babies survive and have the best quality of life."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "The department does fund some research into premature birth, however, the Medical Research Council (MRC) is the main agency through which the government supports medical and clinical research.

"The MRC is an independent body, funded by the Department of Trade and Industry via the Office of Science and Technology.

"In addition, the Department of Health set up the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit - a research unit which conducts research to provide information to improve the health and welfare of babies, mothers and their families."

The MRC, to which Dr Mehmet unsuccessfully applied for funding, said: "We cannot comment on specific cases but competition for funding is intense and we do have a number of ongoing studies involving premature babies."




SEE ALSO
Device to save premature babies
08 Feb 05 |  Health
Stem cells 'arrest brain damage'
09 Sep 04 |  Science/Nature

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