Pre-term to long-term
The long-term effects of pre-term births are being examined by Dr Max Berry, a neonatologist in the Department of Paediatrics and Children's Health in Wellington.
Until recently, neonatologists have focused on keeping pre-term babies safe until they graduate from the NICU. But Berry, who has been awarded an HRC Emerging Researcher First Grant to pursue this research, says they are becoming increasingly aware the story does not end there.
"We've known for some time that pre-term birth sets the children on a very different trajectory for growth and development, but this also extends to cardiovascular function, diabetic risk and how these kids metabolise energy. My research is geared around trying to understand some of the biological mechanisms that underpin these effects."
The HRC-funded research involves the use of a unique animal model she has developed to examine the trajectory of change from pre-term birth into young adulthood.
Berry says the western diet contains excess salt, a major risk factor for high blood pressure. Adults born pre-term may not handle this salt load as well as others, which may amplify their risk of high blood pressure and its complications.
"If that is so, then there's whole heap of parental education and guidance about the right sort of weaning food, the right sorts of diets that young people ought to be getting if they were born early."
Berry says understanding the trigger mechanisms would also provide a window on how the risks might be treated or managed.