Cooling therapy for newborn babies

Professor Marianne Thoresen studied piglets to help her pioneer therapy that protects thousands of newborn babies worldwide from brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen at birth.

Background to research

Complications before and during labour and delivery can cause a lack of oxygen to the brain, with potentially devastating consequences. Around one in 1,000 full-term babies in the UK suffer from a lack of oxygen severe enough to cause brain injury.

In the past, 70 per cent either died, or survived with cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. Worldwide, a lack of oxygen at birth accounts for 23 per cent of newborn deaths.

Studies performed

Starting in the early 1990s, Professor Marianne Thoresen and colleagues at the University of Oslo and, since 1998, the University of Bristol studied newborn piglets to develop models of newborn brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen.

They aimed to find out if cooling the animals down by just a few degrees within the first hours of life protected their brains from damage. Their studies were successful and helped pave the way for clinical trials in Bristol and beyond of the same approach in newborn infants. The trials showed that cooling reduced injury in many but not all affected children.

Research impact

The cooling technique, tested first in animals, directly challenged the practice of keeping sick babies warm, which had been the preferred approach to newborn care for over a century. Since 2010, cooling has become the recommended way to treat lack of oxygen at birth throughout the developed world.

This approach is still being refined, but already saves 1,500 babies from death and disability each year and is saving the NHS, and families, more than £200 million per annum.

This approach already saves 1,500 babies from death and disability each year.

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