12 December 2022

A major achievement for Associate Professor Shannon Simpson was the recent establishment of PELICAN (Prematurity’s Effects on the Lungs In Children and Adults Network), which she co-chairs with Dr Jenny Hallberg from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. See also 10 of the Best

'In ten years' time, somebody might ask what I'm most proud of and I suspect it might be this,' said Associate Professor Simpson.

PELICAN is a data sharing consortium for lung health data from survivors of preterm birth. A lot of hard work has been put into this project to bring researchers from all over the world to work together for the same outcome – to understand the lung health trajectory after preterm birth and potentially find targets that could translate into clinical trials.

Besides leading the PELICAN Clinical Research Collaboration, Associate Professor Simpson is a Senior Research Fellow and Co-Head of Children's Lung Health at the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia. She is also head of Children's Lung Health at the Wal-yan Respiratory Research Centre and leads a multi-disciplinary research program that aims to reduce the burden of lung disease in survivors of preterm birth.

With a passion and devotion to improving lung health outcomes for preterm babies, she was a finalist in the 2021 Western Australian of the Year Awards and winner of the community/ social enterprise category in the 2019 Business News 40under40 awards.

'I have been really lucky to have some awesome people who are all on the same page as me, and who work really hard to make a difference for babies born preterm,' said Associate Professor Simpson.

During her PhD, Associate Professor Simpson was fascinated by marsupials, born at a comparatively early stage of gestation but able to survive and thrive despite underdeveloped lungs.

In contrast, prior to the 1990s, most babies born very and extremely preterm (less than 32 weeks gestation) were unlikely to survive.

Photograph of Prof Simpson sitting at a desk
Associate Professor Shannon Simpson

Today, more than 85% of babies born very preterm in Australia survive.1

While survival rates of children born preterm have improved, these children often have ongoing lung problems. For example, more than half of children born preterm suffer from respiratory symptoms through childhood.

'My research has explored the ongoing effects of premature birth on the lungs throughout life and we have been able to follow the progress these children have made from their first encounter as babies in an intensive care unit through to their teenage years,' said Associate Professor Simpson.

A turning point in her journey of discovery happened when her team published an article in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health showing that the lung function of preterm babies moved further away from normal through their childhood years. While this was potentially devastating news for families, it opened an entirely new field of research. Associate Professor Simpson's team has since provided the first insights into the mechanisms potentially underpinning lung disease associated with preterm birth and is in the process of conducting the first clinical trial to improve childhood lung health for preterm birth survivors.

Associate Professor Simpson started her journey with an NHMRC Early Career Fellowship. She says that the fellowship 'gives you the opportunity to go from working on other, more senior, Investigator's grants to developing your own ideas'.

'My advice to researchers who are starting out is to make sure you have a really good mentor in place. It is really important to have people batting for you!'

Next steps

Associate Professor Simpson and her team are further pursuing the work of the PELICAN clinical research collaboration. They will be exploring the mechanisms underpinning poor lung health after preterm birth and conducting interventions to improve lung health in those with preterm associated lung disease. With the passion Associate Professor Simpson and her team have for their research, it will be exciting to see the outcome.

Associate Professor Shannon Simpson
Curtin University and Telethon Kids Institute
Identifying chest factors with the potential to improve the long-term health outcomes of babies born preterm
Team members
Dr Andrew Wilson
Dr Elizabeth Smith
Ms Naomi Hemy
Ms Tiffany Bradshaw
Ms Rubi ni Chin
Ms Rhea Urs
Ms Denby Evans
Dr James Gibbons
Dr Nada Townsi
Grant information
Early Career Fellowship

See also 10 of the Best

1 Chow SSW et al. Report of the Australian and New Zealand Neonatal Netowrk 2013. Sydney: ANZNN; 2015.

Featured image Credit
Photo supplied by: Associate Professor Shannon Simpson