A/Professor Graeme Polglase
The Ritchie Centre, Hudson Institute of Medical Research, Monash University
23 September 2019

Being born preterm is the greatest cause of neonatal death worldwide, with survivors at a high risk of lung, cardiovascular and brain injury. Interventions around the time of birth can significantly improve outcomes of preterm infants, with life-long benefits

Last month the Australian Government committed to strengthening Australians’ health through a $440 million commitment for research to prevent illness and deliver better care.

A total of 298 new projects received funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

Associate Professor Graeme Polglase from Monash University received more than $2 million for his research to better understand the physiological mechanisms behind the progression of brain injury and develop therapies, to reduce the risk of life-long adverse consequences, particularly to lungs and brains of premature babies.

The day you are born is one of the most dangerous days of your life. A newborn baby is so vulnerable and that is amplified 10-fold if you are born too early.

According to the World Health Organisation 15 million babies are born too early in the world each year. 1 million of these babies will die, making it the greatest cause of newborn death. Those that survive have an increased risk of injury to their lungs and brain, including chronic lung disease and cerebral palsy.

Currently there is no way to stop premature birth, and no effective treatment to reduce/prevent brain injury in these newborns. A/Professor Polglase’s research is focusing on improving the way preterm infants are treated at birth with a focus on protecting their vulnerable brains from injury.

The focus of my research is to reduce the high rates of death in preterm infants worldwide, and ensure those that survive are free of disabilities, said A/Professor Polglase.

With this vital funding, A/Professor Polglase and his team will continue research to understand the causes of brain injury in preterm infants, and develop clinically relevant strategies to reduce/prevent the initiation of brain injury.

Our research will focus on the immediate time at birth and include techniques such as delayed cord clamping, improving the way we give respiratory support at birth and continued care in the neonatal intensive care unit. Importantly, we will be testing the most promising therapies, including stem cells, to reduce brain injury in preterm neonates said A/Professor Polglase.

A/Professor Polglase’s research has demonstrated that improving the management of preterm babies at birth by delaying umbilical cord clamping until after breathing/aeration of the lungs can stabilise cardiac output and improve oxygenation of the newborn. This in turn can significantly reduce death and poor neurological outcomes.

Our research has led to the initiation of international randomised clinical trials in preterm infants and has resulted in significant changes to National and International Resuscitation Guidelines, particularly those focused on the initial care of infants in resource-limited settings, said A/Professor Polglase.

Advances in modern medicine have made possible to keep most babies born even as early as 24 weeks of gestation alive (term is ~40 weeks), but this comes at the cost of a high risk of brain injury.

The NHMRC funding gives my research team a real chance at developing and testing therapies to reduce preterm brain injury with life-long benefits for the individual, families and society in general, said A/Professor Polglase.

A/Professor Polglase hopes to test the utility of his research most promising therapies for reducing brain injury in preterm newborn and have progressed them into clinical trials for neuroprotection in preterm infants.

A full list of grant recipients is available on NHMRC’s website.