You are here

Autumn Newsletter - May 2021

Autumn Newsletter - May 2021

Mapping a baby’s first breath

Baby cyring

A newborn baby’s first cry signals that the baby’s lungs have inflated with air for the first time. It is a critical stage in a baby’s development but happens so fleetingly that it is difficult to study.

Almost 10 per cent of newborns and almost all preterm infants need resuscitation at birth, so it is essential that we learn more about the process of baby’s first breath.

Thankfully, an MCRI-led research team has had a breakthrough in studying newborn lungs. They have developed a device consisting of a small belt that wraps around the infant’s chest and takes highly detailed images of the movement of air in the lungs. Importantly, this device is non-invasive and does not interfere with parental contact or clinical care.

“Respiratory problems are the most common reason we need to treat babies in intensive care,” says Associate Professor David Tingay. “This new technology not only allows us to see deep into the lungs but it’s also the only method we have of continuously imaging the lungs without using radiation or interrupting life-saving care. This study has shown that babies’ lungs are far more complicated than traditional monitoring methods had previously suggested.”

The research helps us understand what happens in a baby’s first breath and why healthy babies cry at birth. It also provides clues to improving preterm babies’ survival chances and long-term health outcomes.

This is welcome news for parents like Johanna Bezette, whose daughter, 14-month-old Milly, has chronic lung disease after being born at 25 weeks.

“So many families could be spared in future from what we went through in those first few weeks of Milly’s life,” Ms Bezette says.

“To have imaging technology that can detect quickly whether there is problem with a newborn’s lungs and that’s also not invasive will be of such great comfort.”

Read more and watch a video of this research in action.

Children's immune systems quick to attack COVID-19

Children holding sports balls in the park

MCRI researchers have gained insights into why children are less affected by COVID-19 than adults, after finding that specialised cells in their immune systems rapidly target the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

To further substantiate these findings, researchers also analysed blood samples of 48 children and 70 adults in Melbourne who had been exposed to the coronavirus. Their immune responses were then monitored during the acute phase of infection and the weeks afterwards.

The research found that infection-fighting cells in a child’s immune system rapidly target the coronavirus. These cells are called neutrophils, a specialised white blood cell that helps heal damaged tissues and clear infections.

The adults in the study did not have the same immune response. “This shows that the innate immune system, our first line of defence against germs, is crucial to prevent severe COVID-19 in children,” says MCRI’s Dr Melanie Neeland, who led the study.

The precise mechanism that protects children from extreme COVID-19 infections was unknown until this study. Interestingly, increased numbers of neutrophils were also found in both children and adults who had been exposed to the coronavirus, but did not become infected.

“Understanding the underlying age-related differences in the severity of COVID-19 will provide important insights and opportunities for prevention and treatment, both for COVID-19 and possible future pandemics,” says Dr Neeland.

Read more about this important study.

Blood pressure best tested in both arms in children

High blood pressure is a common health issue for adults, but few people realise that it is also common in children. Almost 14 per cent of children around the world have elevated blood pressure or hypertension.

Doctor checking blood pressure of a child

“Children with high blood pressure, many of whom appear to be healthy, have a greater risk of developing hypertension in adulthood, a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease,” says MCRI Associate Professor Jonathan Mynard.

An MCRI-led study has found that blood pressure readings can vary between arms in children and adolescents. The difference may be small, but it can be substantial enough to lead to misdiagnosis.

One in four healthy children had an inter-arm difference that could lead to misdiagnosis. This figure doubled in those with a history of aortic surgery, which is often performed in infants with congenital heart disease.

MCRI PhD candidate and study lead author Melanie Clarke says this was the first study worldwide to determine the size and frequency of inter-arm blood pressure differences in children and adolescents.

“Given blood pressure measured in a child’s right and left arm are often different, it’s important to take measurements in both arms to make a correct diagnosis,” she says. “Accurate blood pressure assessment in kids is critical for identifying the potential risk for damage to the heart and blood vessels, which can lead to early-onset cardiovascular disease.”

Read more about the study here.

Introducing peanuts early isn’t nuts

Baby being fed by mother

Back in the 1990s, many food guidelines recommended steering clear of allergenic foods, such as peanuts, until children were one to three years of age. In the years that followed, it became apparent that this approach had the opposite effect – children were becoming more, not less, allergic.

Guidelines started removing this advice from 2008. But it wasn’t until 2016 that international infant feeding guidelines started recommending introducing those foods early – before 12 months of age.

Researchers at MCRI have found that those allergy guideline changes have led to a decrease in peanut allergies in infants.

Comparing data from a study conducted in 2018-2019 with one from 2007-2011, it was found that peanut allergies had decreased by 16 per cent. At the same time, peanut consumption in infants under 12 months increased from 28 per cent to 89 per cent.

While this suggests that early consumption of a food can help prevent an allergy later in life, Australia still has the highest reported rates of childhood food allergy in the world. About one in 10 infants and one in 20 children up to five years of age have a food allergy.

“The safety of early peanut introduction at home is of significant interest to parents as well as health professionals around the world,” says MCRI’s Dr Koplin. “More research must be done to look closer at these trends to help us understand how well early introduction to peanut works to prevent peanut allergies in real-life situations.”

Crack the shell on this research here.

Intimate partner violence: the cost on children’s health

Primary student looking distracted

Intimate partner violence is a global health issue. It’s the most common form of violence against women and also has consequence for children – children are more likely to have poorer language skills and mental and physical health as a result.

Fortunately, research indicates that early intervention can help limit the health impacts on children.

A new study led by MCRI has found that up to half of all children with language difficulties and mental and physical health problems have been exposed to intimate partner violence. Children exposed to intimate partner violence from infancy were twice as likely to have a psychiatric diagnosis, emotional and behavioural difficulties, and impaired language skills at age 10. They were also more likely to have asthma and sleep problems.

The study also compared the health outcomes for two groups at the age of 10. The first group was exposed to intimate partner violence in the year they turned 10, whereas the second group were not exposed beyond the age of five.

Those in the first group were two to three times more likely to experience poor mental health, elevated blood pressure and sleep difficulties. But with the exception of language difficulties and asthma, health outcomes at age 10 were not affected for the second group.

The study has prompted calls for health and social care services to provide more effective identification and early intervention.

“Services need to be aware of the impact of intimate partner violence on children’s health and wellbeing and work to overcome barriers that may get in the way of women seeking support for themselves and their children,” says MCRI Professor Stephanie Brown.

“If child health and social services do not recognise and respond to intimate partner violence as a potential contributing factor to poor child health outcomes, interventions to support children with health and developmental problems are likely to be less effective.”

Find out more about this research. 

Funding boost for COVID-19 research

Petri dish

Thanks to a boost of funding from the State Government, an MCRI-led research project is able to expand its investigations into the effects of COVID-19 on different organs in the body.

The project uses human stem cells to better understand the effects of the virus on different organ systems in the body including the lungs, heart, kidneys, brain, immune system and blood vessels, to support the development of targeted treatments. The research has already deepened our understanding on how coronavirus impacts on the heart.

The group of scientists from MCRI, The Doherty Institute, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and Monash University will use the funding to include placental tissue to gain greater insight into the effects of coronavirus during pregnancy.

The team will also be investigating possible causes of ‘long COVID’ and expand their research into emerging strains of the virus.

This is the first time research of this kind has been done in Australia, with MCRI one of only a few facilities worldwide able to study the effect of the virus on every major human organ.

Read more about MCRI's COVID-19 response. 

Every donation you make has the potential to save a child like James’s life

Help us find solutions to serious childhood illnesses such as heart disease – the leading cause of death and disability in children.

Every week heart disease claims 5,000 young lives worldwide, so we urgently need to find new ways to prevent and treat it.

Donate now