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Improving the Odds for Premature Infants

Researcher Seeks Ways to Protect Infants' Fragile Brains

Only 10 percent of researchers seeking funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are awarded grants each year. Among those making the cut year after year are physicians from Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital at Westchester Medical Center and New York Medical College who are studying ways to prevent and treat diseases in children.

Praveen Ballabh, M.D., Julian Stewart, M.D., Ph.D., and Allen Dozor, M.D., are among the physicians whose cuttingedge research regularly makes the grade. Dr. Ballabh, who has received $2.6 million in funding over the past nine years, says a proposal must meet several criteria to obtain NIH support.

Something Special
A research proposal should be based on a novel idea or theory, and tackle a significant medical problem. Brain hemorrhage in premature infants, the subject of Dr. Ballabh's research, is significant because it puts newborns at risk of cerebral palsy, mental retardation, hydrocephalus and even death.

Successful research projects also must use a "bench-tobedside," or translational approach. "It is important that the research findings can be directly applied to humans," says Dr. Ballabh.

What's more, researchers need preliminary data to support their theories. At Maria Fareri Children's Hospital, the Children's Hospital Foundation has awarded seed grants to physicians and scientists with promising theories. These grants help researchers to gather the preliminary data needed for NIH applications. New York Medical College, the hospital's medical school affiliate, has also supported "starter" grants to get promising research off the ground.

 Finally, the NIH looks for investigators and institutions that have a track record of getting results, and publishing their findings. For example, in 2007, Dr. Ballabh published ground-breaking research in the prestigious medical journal "Nature."

With support from the NIH, Dr. Ballabh and his team succeeded in preventing brain hemorrhages in premature rabbit pups by treating the mother rabbits with a drug that inhibits the rapid growth of blood vessels. Dr. Ballabh has now turned his sights on finding ways to limit the damage that hemorrhages cause.

Giving Premature Babies a Chance
Dr. Ballabh is now directing three separate research projects, all aimed at finding ways to increase the production of myelin in the premature infant’s brain. Myelin is a protective coating found on the axons, or primary transmitters of electrical impulses in the brain. When there is not enough myelin covering the axons, the nervous system does not function properly.

 Dr. Ballabh and his team have identified some key molecules in the hemorrhaging brain that may suppress the production of myelin. He is optimistic that these molecules can be reduced by use of medications, thereby restoring myelin in premature infants.

If Dr. Ballabh's theories are correct, physicians may someday be able to give medications to premature infants with brain hemorrhage in order to promote the production of myelin. This, in turn, would help the brain recover from injuries caused by bleeding and prevent some of the worst complications of prematurity.

"If this works, treatment wouldn’t be hard to administer and could greatly improve the baby’s chances of a healthy life," says Dr. Ballabh.


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