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Centre de recherche
Tuesday, December 14 2010

Immune deficiency explains why preterm babies are vulnerable to infections

Vancouver – December 1, 2010 – Researchers have discovered an immune deficiency that explains why preterm babies are vulnerable to infections, which can be lifethreatening and harmful to brain development with life‐long effects.

The investigators analyzed cord blood from 12 babies born before 29 weeks of pregnancy and 18 who were born after a full pregnancy (40 weeks), and compared the blood cells’ response to bits of bacteria.

They found that babies born before 29 weeks were low in a blood protein called p40, which helps white blood cells fight bacterial and viral infections. The researchers then followed 425 babies, some of whom were born preterm and others full‐term, for three days after birth and found that babies who developed sepsis, a dangerous whole‐body infection, had the lowest levels of p40.

The findings are published in the December 1st print edition of the Journal of Infectious Diseases.

“We found that the p40 protein is deficient in preterm babies and likely essential for fighting infection,” says Dr. Pascal Lavoie, who led the research. Dr. Lavoie is a Clinician Scientist at the Child & Family Research Institute; Neonatologist at BC Children’s Hospital and BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre, agencies of the Provincial Health Services Authority; and a member of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia.

“Unlike babies born at full term, preterm babies have very little p40. Since they’re born too early, they’re not prepared for the bacteria and viruses of the outside world,” says Dr. Lavoie.

A placental infection caused Virginie Bernard to go into labour during her sixth month of pregnancy in April 2010. Upon delivery, her daughter Ana was immediately admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit at BC Women’s, where a breathing tube was inserted into her airway and she was put on two weeks of IV antibiotics to treat infection. A few weeks after she’d recovered, Ana was infected by Strep B bacteria and she was again treated with IV antibiotics.

“Infections like this one could be very dramatic because of the high mortality rate – over 50 per cent if untreated – and the potential devastating consequence on the baby’s developing brain,” says Dr. Lavoie.

“When Ana contracted this infection, the doctors had a very quick reaction and in just a few hours, they decided to put her on an IV,” says Ms. Bernard, who moved to Canada from France with her husband Wilfried Logerais in February 2010. “I’m sure it’s because of that she is so well now and she didn’t contract meningitis. Because this hospital is highly involved in research, the doctors think differently and they’re reacting more quickly.”

Today, Ana is doing well.

“She’s very dynamic, she’s smiling, she’s very curious, she’s a perfect baby,” says Ms. Bernard.

Preterm babies are particularly susceptible to infections because their immune systems are immature. Since their organs aren’t fully developed, they often require intensive care such as IV, respirators and feeding tubes that increases their risk of infection. Preterm babies also miss receiving protective antibodies from their mothers, which usually happens in the third trimester.

“By understanding what’s deficient in preterm babies, I’m hoping we’ll be able to develop a way to boost the immunity of these babies and prevent infection,” says Dr. Lavoie. “This work couldn’t have been done without the parents’ generosity in allowing their babies to participate in the research.”

The study participants were recruited from BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre in Vancouver; Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Sainte‐Justine in Montreal; Royal Alexandra Hospital, the Misericordia Hospital and the Grey Nuns Hospital in Edmonton.

This research was funded by the British Columbia Lung Association, Sick Kids Foundation, BC Children’s Hospital Foundation (in partnership with the Division of Neonatology at Children’s & Women’s Health Centre of British Columbia), National Institutes of Health (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases), AllerGen NCE, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

The Child & Family Research Institute (CFRI) conducts discovery, clinical and applied research to benefit the health of children and families. It is the largest institute of its kind in Western Canada. CFRI works in close partnership with the University of British Columbia; BC Children’s Hospital and Sunny Hill Health Centre for Children, BC Women’s Hospital & Health Centre, agencies of the Provincial Health Services Authority; and BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. CFRI has additional important relationships with B.C.’s five regional health authorities and with BC academic institutions Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, the University of Northern British Columbia, and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. For more information, visit www.cfri.ca.

For information
Jennifer Kohm, Child & Family Research Institute

T: 604.875.2401
C: 604.992.6567


Chercheurs au CHU Sainte-Justine

  • Hugo Soudeyns, PhD
  • Anne-Monique Nuyt, MD
  • François Audibert, MD
  • Élyse Jolette, étudiante MSc

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