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Therapeutic hypothermia (cooling babies) to prevent brain damage and death caused by lack of oxygen

Professor Marianne Thoresen, University of Bristol & UH Bristol

Between one and two babies for every thousand born at term suffer a lack of oxygen during labour and delivery that is severe enough to injure the brain - hypoxic-ischaemic encephalopathy (HIE); approximately 1625 of the 650,000 births/year in the UK. Before the development of therapeutic hypothermia, a quarter of affected newborn babies were likely to die, while the 75% that survived were at risk of severe handicap.

In January 1998, Marianne Thoresen and Andrew Whitelaw established a laboratory and clinical research programme at the University of Bristol and UH Bristol to investigate and develop therapeutic hypothermia as a treatment for neonatal HIE. The research transformed the management of neonatal brain injury. By 2010/11, therapeutic cooling had been adopted as standard treatment throughout the developed world, saving thousands of children from death or severe disability, including cerebral palsy and epilepsy - mild cooling of newborn children who had suffered a lack of oxygen during labour and delivery reduced death and disability by over 50%.

The researchers are continuing to expand on their findings, and new technology now means that it can be delivered to babies while they are being transferred to St Michael's Hospital as part of a clinical trial.

In May 2010, the UK's National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued new guidance stating that there was sufficient evidence on the safety and efficacy of therapeutic hypothermia "to support the use of this procedure in carefully selected neonates..."