Melbourne research to be a lifesaver for premature babies

Two-year-old Shifra with her parents Michelle and Neville Matar.  Photo: Joe Armao.

By Peter Barrett

Shifra Matar arrived too early. Like 500 babies born prematurely in Australia each year, she spent less than 25 weeks in her mother’s womb and came into the world dangerously unprepared.

Weighing just 460 grams, or just a little heavier than a can of baked beans at her lightest, her delicate lungs developed rare, life-threatening complications, leading to a protracted 13-month stay at Monash Children’s Hospital.

For over a year, anxious parents Michelle and Neville Matar watched over their premature baby, forced to confront her likely death three times before finally taking her home.

But now, thanks to new Melbourne research, it is possible to predict complications like Shifra’s in premature babies, leading to faster, more effective treatments and, hopefully, shorter hospital stays.

Monash faculty of medicine’s Professor of Pediatrics Arvind Sehgal and a team, including pathologist Dr Yuen Chan, tested the placentas of 56 mothers of babies born less than 28 weeks into gestation. They found that the structure of blood vessels in some placentas were noticeably thicker than others. The babies with these placentas typically went on to contract rare lung disease complications like the ones Shifra experienced: bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD, also known as chronic lung disease) and chronic pulmonary hypertension (PH, or high blood pressure in the lungs).

“If we can confidently know that there’s some information in the placenta, which puts a particular baby at the higher risk of developing a complication, there are things we can do to change management strategies,” says Professor Sehgal, who will travel to San Francisco in May to present his findings to the prestigious Society for Pediatric Research Annual Meeting.

In Shifra’s case, her hospital stay could have been reduced and her treatment fast-tracked had doctors been aware of the new findings.

“It’s very important that we find out some clues from the placenta – which baby is going to turn up this extra complication […] and individualise ventilation strategies, do early ultrasounds of the heart to pick up if that’s developing, and start them on special medicines very early on,” Professor Sehgal said.

Happily, Shifra’s lungs responded well to treatment. When she was given the all-clear to come home, her parents were overjoyed. “I couldn’t even pick the dress I wanted to put on,” says Michelle of the day they picked Shifra up from the hospital, which had become a second home for them. “I think I was overwhelmed … it was so exciting.”

After two months at home in Berwick being tended to by her parents, who are both nurses, Shifra was well enough to come off oxygen and a week later she was starting to eat regular food. Today, she weighs a robust 12.5 kilograms, walks, talks and loves Peppa Pig. “I want to thank Monash … I don’t have the words,” says Michelle. “They were like family to me – very professional. And they never stopped – they kept trying this, trying that. They’re just awesome people.”

“We are really delighted by how she has progressed,” says Professor Sehgal. “[But] we really want babies that are born as premature as her to not go through this prolonged hospitalisation and morbidity. We want to find out very early on and put steps into place, so we can help them early.”

This story first appeared in the Saturday Age on 15 April, 2017.