Neonatal research at Mater

Mater’s world-class research institute—Mater Research—delivers medical and clinical research that translates research findings from ‘bench to bedside’ as quickly as possible; directly benefiting patients at Mater, across Australia and around the world.

Right now, some promising and world-leading mother and baby research projects are underway:


Research to help premature babies

Exploring the role of taste and smell in newborn development

Feeding—how, how often, when to stop—can be one of the biggest worries of new parents. Mater researcher Dr Freddy Beker is looking at the physiology of early feeding and nutritional learning in newborns with very low birth weight.

When babies are born very early, they lack the coordination to suck so they are fed their mother’s breast milk through stomach tubes. Pre-term babies often don’t tolerate the tube feeds. They can vomit, and this hampers their growth as they are not getting the nutrients they require.

To help these babies Dr Beker, along with the nursing team at Mater’s Neonatal Critical Care Unit, are testing the theory that babies born before 29 weeks, with regular exposure to smell and taste while tube feeding, will better gain weight and subsequently have better neurodevelopmental outcomes. She is also testing how this relates to their emotional behaviour around feeding, coordination when sucking and body composition.

This study is the first of its kind in the world, and is the largest study of its kind in early preterm infants. This study could make an enormous difference to the lives of premature babies and their families.

New treatments for newborn babies who are compromised at birth

Babies born at less than 32 weeks of pregnancy have an increased risk of neurodisability, including cerebral palsy. That is why Mater’s researchers are working to minimise the damage to babies’ brains from being born early and the lack of oxygen they may have during birth.

In two different trials, Associate Professor Paul Dawson is looking at ways that everyday nutrients, including magnesium sulphate, can support healthy brain growth and development in premature babies. Professor Helen Liley is working to minimise the damage caused by hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy (HIE) which occurs when a baby does not receive enough blood or oxygen to their brain before or during birth.

Preventing adverse outcomes for baby’s born prematurely 

Mater Neonatology specialist and researcher Dr Helen Liley and her team is currently conducting research into a condition which claims the lives of up to a million babies worldwide each year*.

Neonatal Hypoxic Ischaemic encephalopathy—or HIE—is a potentially life-threatening condition which occurs when a baby does not receive enough blood or oxygen before or during birth. This lack of oxygen can destroy vital cells in a newborn baby’s brain. If a baby survives, the condition can lead to lifelong health problems and disabilities and at the moment, HIE is extremely difficult to predict and prevent.

The Preventing Adverse Outcomes of Neonatal Encephalopathy with Erythropoetin (PAEAN) study is looking at ways to limit the injury and brain cell death that occurs in babies with HIE. HIE damages a baby’s brain very quickly—but this damage then slowly progresses further. This means there is an opportunity to slow or stop HIE and the cell death it causes in a baby’s brain.

Dr Liley is trying to improve current treatment for HIE. Combining two separate treatments; cooling a baby’s body temperature and giving a hormone that leads to the formation of red blood cells, this study at Mater will examine whether this combination can reduce the numbers of babies suffering from death or disability as a result of HIE.

*World Health Organisation 2005 

Understanding more about how a baby heart functions

Very little is known about how a baby’s heart functions in the womb. Mater researcher Alison Lee-Tannock is leading on a trial that looks at how baby’s heart function every four weeks from halfway through pregnancy. An ultrasound is used to see how much blood comes in and out with each heartbeat and how well the babies’ hearts are working. It is hoped that this screening will increase the options for parents facing a high-risk pregnancy; ensuring each expectant mum can have a more personalised approach to treating their baby’s heart.


Other Mater research projects for mothers and their babies

Assessing asthma in pregnancy

Research has found that children of mothers with untreated asthma during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from asthma, allergies and cardiovascular disease. There is also an increased chance of premature birth, fetal growth restriction and stillbirth. Mater Professor Vicki Clifton’s study aims to reduce the number of hospitalisations of pregnant women with asthma. A randomised controlled trial at Mater Mothers’ Hospital is underway to determine the effectiveness of antenatal asthma service for improving outcomes for mums with asthma and their babies.

Reducing the number of stillbirths

For one in every 130 women*, tragedy strikes in the second or third trimester of their pregnancy and a family’s much awaited new baby is stillborn. To help reduce this number, Mater researchers are looking at new ways to investigate the causes and ultimate prevention of stillbirth. The research findings will be used to develop and implement new programs to help reduce the occurrence of stillbirth, as well as improving care and support for families who experience such a tragedy.

This study is being led by Mater Professor Vicki Flenady—who is also the lead investigator of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Centre of Research Excellence (CRE) in Stillbirth: a collaboration across six Australian universities with strong links to the perinatal clinical services and policy, and wide community research.

For more information on neonatal research happening right now at Mater, visit the Mater Research website.

*Source: Better Health Victoria 2015.


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For urgent assessment at any stage of your pregnancy, please present to your nearest emergency centre or Mater Mothers’ 24/7 Pregnancy Assessment Centre in South Brisbane.

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