Immunological basis for infections in prematurely born infants

Pre-term babies, those born before week 37 weeks of gestation, are more susceptible to invasive infections than full-term babies. The smallest babies born “extremely” premature (those born before 32 weeks, or approximately 1,500 grams or less of birth weight) suffer the greatest burden of infection among all age patient age groups in BC and other developed countries in general. About one in four “extremely” pre-term babies suffers from an invasive infection, which adds up to more than 8,760 new invasive infections in North America each year. In addition to the immediate health risks, such as a major loss of cardiorespiratory function or death, these infections may lead to long-term physical and intellectual handicaps in these children.

The work of Dr. Pascal Lavoie aims to understand why pre-term babies are so vulnerable to infections caused by common micro-organisms. Dr. Lavoie and his team are examining the way that babies’ immune cells work early in life to determine if this differs from the function of mature immune systems. In order to do this in a way that is completely safe to babies, he takes advantage of scavenged blood samples (he uses, for example, placental blood normally discarded at birth) analyzed using sophisticated technologies to extract detailed information about the human immune system.

Dr. Lavoie also aims to understand why the immune system of pre-term babies appears underdeveloped and what impact therapeutic manipulation of the latter may have on diseases such as bronchopulmonary dysplasia: a chronic form of neonatal inflammatory lung disease which appears to be caused by excessive activation of the immune system during infection. Ultimately, Dr. Lavoie hopes that a better understanding of the immune systems of pre-term infants will help researchers and doctors develop better treatments to boost immune defenses and prevent the dreadful consequences of infections in vulnerable newborns.