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UA research study to predict and prevent deadly disease in premature infants

Posted at 6:17 PM, May 03, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-03 21:17:31-04

University of Arizona researchers are closing in on a development treating a deadly disease in premature infants.

The study aims to predict and prevent a condition that attacks a newborns intestines called Necrotizing Enterocolitis (NEC). It's an inflammatory gastrointestinal disease, is one of the leading causes of illness and death among premature infants, affecting about 9,000 in the United States each year.

Thanks to a new $1.9 million grant at the University of Arizona Steele Children's Research Center,  researchers, led by UA Steele Center researcher and associate professor, Melissa Halpern, PhD, will discover ways to prevent the deadly disease. "We want to create the first test that will accurately predict if a premature baby may be susceptible to NEC, so we can treat and prevent it from developing," she said. Halpern has dealt with NEC personally. Her son, Ryan, was born eight weeks prematurely and developed the disorder. "I knew nothing about it and I was completed frustrated at that time, because the doctors didn't know much about it either," she explained. Thankfully, her son survived, but now she wants future parents to be more prepared than she was. "For some reason they are more susceptible to having to deal with feeding by mouth and their intestine cant handle that, and that's what starts the cascade of inflammation which leads to death of tissue," she said.

According to Halpern, in severe cases of NEC, a premature infant's inflamed intestines may tear or perforate, which enables bacteria to leak into the abdomen-potentially causing life-threatening sepsis. As a result, damaged intestines may have to surgically be removed. These children often face lifelong severe digestive problems. Part of the study is to collect fecal material from premature babies in Tucson and Phoenix. Once collected, fecal bile acid levels will be determined and correlated with the type and amount of feeding, medications given, gestational age and baby's birth weight.

Dr. Halpern says collecting data could take  months and hopes to have results in the next few years.