Medal recognises ground-breaking research helping thousands of babies

24 November 2016
Professor Jane Harding
Professor Jane Harding with members of her research team

It can take decades for scientific breakthroughs to generate change in health policy and practice, but research led by Distinguished Professor Jane Harding at the Liggins Institute has transformed the treatment for a common, potentially serious newborn condition in less than three years.

This feat was celebrated last night when Professor Harding received the Beaven Medal at the prestigious Royal Society of New Zealand’s Research Honours Dinner in Christchurch.

“It’s a very special acknowledgement of the work of a big team over a long period of time,” says Professor Harding, recognised as one of the country’s leading neonatologists.

The “Sugar Babies” study by Professor Harding and her team, which involved 400 babies born at Waikato Hospital at risk of low blood sugar, was published in the Lancet late 2013. It showed for the first time that a $2 dose of dextrose (sugar) gel massaged inside a baby’s cheek is more effective than feeding alone for treating low blood sugar, or neonatal hypoglycaemia.

About 30 percent of New Zealand babies – or 21,000 babies a year – need testing for low blood sugar under current guidelines, and half of those, about 15 percent of all babies born, go on to develop low glucose levels. In severe cases, low blood sugars can lead to developmental brain damage.

Three-quarters of birthing units in New Zealand are now using the sugar gel treatment, and report a drop in the number of babies admitted to neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) for low blood sugar. Similar reports are coming in from other countries where the gel has been adopted, including the UK, Australia, and the US.

“I’ve been interested in this condition for a long time because it’s common but there hasn’t been any really good evidence on how we should manage it and what it means for the babies,” says Professor Harding. “We test and treat millions of babies around the world without strong evidence on what’s working and what’s not.”

The Beaven Medal, named after the late Sir Donald Beaven, recognises excellence in translating research into clinical practice.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson says the research is expected to change the way that millions of babies globally are monitored and treated for this condition.

“Jane and her team’s research has led to the development of a new, simple, safe and inexpensive treatment that significantly reduces healthcare costs by keeping babies out of NICU. It also helps keep mother and babies together at a critical time for bonding, while supporting breast feeding and its associated benefits for later health and development,” says Professor McPherson.

“In the end we only do research because we want to improve outcomes – in this case, the health of babies,” says Professor Harding. “But there are many, many steps along the pathway towards effecting that change. The nice thing about the Sugar Babies study is that it has changed the way these babies are looked after so quickly.”

Sugar Babies is only one strand of the team’s ambitious programme of research into low blood sugar, which spans everything from diagnosis, treatment, effects on later development, through to studies now underway into using the same sugar gel to prevent low blood sugars in at-risk babies.

Just last month, the team had a paper published showing that prophylactic dextrose gel can reduce the incidence of low blood glucose levels, and a large clinical trial – “hPOD” - is now underway across nine New Zealand hospitals to see whether the gel used as a preventative also keeps babies out of intensive care and improves breastfeeding rates.

Harding says this progress is thanks to the research team’s rich mix of expertise and collaborative spirit. As well as others from the Liggins Institute, the team includes researchers from elsewhere in the University of Auckland, Waikato Hospital, the University of Canterbury and the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Professor Frank Bloomfield, Institute director, says the breadth and depth of Professor Harding’s research is especially impressive. “From discovery science through to helping develop national clinical practice guidelines, Jane sees it through. She is committed to making a difference to the lives of patients.”

Professor Harding and her collaborators have also changed practice through demonstrating the long-term safety of giving corticosteroids to pregnant women at risk of preterm birth. This treatment, which dramatically reduces the likelihood of preterm babies dying and developing lung disease, was pioneered by the Institute namesake Sir Mont Liggins in the 1970s, but uptake was initially slow due to concerns about long-term impacts on the baby’s health.

Professor Harding and her team have demonstrated that there are no adverse effects for the offspring of mothers who received this treatment through to 30 years of age, a length of follow-up that surpasses that in any other perinatal trial and which provided the reassurance that was needed.

“One of our key focuses at the Institute is rapidly converting discoveries into real-world solutions – ‘research to reality’” says Professor Bloomfield. “Professor Harding has done this in a number of areas with exceptional thoroughness, impact and speed.”



Nicola Shepheard Media Relations Adviser