Big strides but more participation needed for B.C. preemie 'biobank'
Just under a year since BC Women's Hospital launched Canada's first "Preemie Biobank," the research team is already making significant discoveries, but they're trying to raise public awareness to increase participation.
Premature babies' umbilical cords are uniquely suited for research into immune systems, with the infants themselves being 100 time more susceptible to infection than full-term babies.
"There's something about their immune system that makes them vulnerable and we're trying to figure out why," explained BC Children’s Hospital neonatologist and researcher Dr. Pascal Lavoie. “We use the cord blood to obtain immune cells, to study their behaviour, to study how they react to microbes, to study how they can be boosted to respond better."
Unlike full-term babies, the umbilical cords of preemies cannot be banked for future use and are typically disposed of. Medical staff must ask parents for their consent and in the emotional and chaotic atmosphere of a premature birth, which can often come with complications, collection is often forgotten.
The parents of Beatrice Benskin, who was born 14 weeks early and has been in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) ever since, know all about immune challenges arising from premature birth.
"She's had two blood transfusions and necrotizing enterocolitis," said her mom, Stephanie.
Along with her husband, Jeremiah, they have watched Beatrice improve and are grateful for the research underway that could help preemies like their daughter.
"I did not hear about the [BC Women’s Preemie Biobank] program, which is unfortunate because I totally would’ve donated for blood cord research if I had known," added Stephanie.
Lavoie’s team has already received a million dollar grant from the federal government for further research after a milestone discovery in November, just four months after the collection and research program began.
“We made an important discovery about how [the immune system of premature infants could be turned off], what the cellular pathways are that may be involved and we think that is going to give us the key to turn some of these pathways on safely," he said.
"This research is unique in Canada and would not have been possible without the biobank."