Tiny Lives helps towards unique Neonatal Biobank

The region’s neonatal experts and charity partners have come together to establish a unique collaboration facilitating ground breaking research to help babies born either prematurely or extremely unwell.

The partnership involves the Newcastle Hospitals, Newcastle University, and much loved North East charity Tiny Lives. This unique, collaborative approach has seen the development of the Great North Neonatal Biobank – the very first of its kind in the UK.

Funded through a generous donation of £14,580 from Tiny Lives, and based at the Newcastle University, the Biobank will create a world-leading resource for scientific research into problems associated with premature birth which affects one in nine babies born in England each year.

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Dr Janet Berrington, a Consultant specialising in Neonatal Medicine at the Royal Victoria Infirmary (RVI), and Honorary Clinical Senior Lecturer at Newcastle University explains:

“Although premature babies’ survival rates have improved immeasurably in recent years, the babies whose lives we are saving experience a range of complex problems: greater risk of infections, complex nutritional needs, immune and metabolic difficulties, developmental and growth delays, and autistic spectrum disorders. 

“At the RVI we see around 150 very premature babies every year, who are born before 32 weeks, from all over the region.  Each baby we care for has a unique set of problems, some of which we don’t fully understand such as life threatening necrotising enterocolitis, also known as NEC. 

“We very much hope that building a bank of ’salvaged’ specimens including urine and stool samples as well as clinical ‘left over’ samples such as blood,  which would all normally be discarded, will help us facilitate research to teach us more about why they develop the problems they do.”

Studying complex problems in very small and sick babies is extremely difficult because specimens are difficult to take, and limited in size, so taking extra samples for research is very appropriately restricted.

Dr Berrington continues:  “This is where collecting and biobanking salvaged samples can play their part. With parents’ permission, by gathering a wealth of samples that would otherwise be discarded, alongside information about outcomes we can undertake scientific studies that would otherwise be impossible, and improve the health and outcomes for babies in their early weeks and months, as well as into the future”

The Tiny Lives Trust which supports the work of Newcastle’s Neonatal Service at the RVI said: “We are delighted to be helping generations of children from across the North East and Cumbria.  The RVI’s Neonatal Unit is a centre of clinical and academic excellence and our grant recognises this unique and vital development as part of our commitment to supporting families who face the trauma of a sick and premature baby.”

Newcastle’s neonatal experts have already built an abundance of knowledge about infections, bowel disease and other important aspects of baby health and growth.

Tiny Lives has helped support many of their studies, and helped establish Newcastle as a major centre for research of this nature. This work is part of the Newcastle Academic Health Partners, a collaboration involving the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University. This partnership harnesses world-class expertise to ensure patients benefit sooner from new treatments, diagnostics and prevention strategies.

Newcastle’s neonatologists are now leading researchers and collaborators across the world, and their research programme has resulted in many publications.

The Tiny Lives Trust adds: “We are immensely proud to help the creation of this biobank, formalising the existing collection of specimens into a sustainable resource for future use, and allowing high quality scientific work to be undertaken. 

“As far as we are aware this is the first such neonatal biobank utilising salvaged samples to support research that promotes survival without impairment and long term health of babies born preterm, small or sick.”

How will the Great North Neonatal Biobank work?

The Great North Neonatal Biobank will start to store its first samples in late 2016/early 2017. Around 100 families a year are expected to contribute, and many thousands of valuable specimens will be accumulated over the coming years.

Parental consent will be obtained for all samples placed in the Biobank, which will be managed by Dr Janet Berrington in line with well established principles and according to the regulations of the Human Tissue Act.  A committee will determine appropriate use of samples within pre-defined ethically approved criteria.

Researchers in Newcastle and outside are able to apply to access these samples.  Research on the biobanked specimens will be aimed at understanding health and disease processes, improving diagnostic and monitoring strategies, and exploring and generating hypotheses for future research focus. The team hope that this resource will improve the health of preterm and sick babies in the future.