26 November 2007

With the help of an innovative new machine, University of Queensland researchers are gaining an important insight into the way babies grow and how certain factors affect their development.

Recently launched at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital (RBWH), the world-first “Pea Pod” measures the body composition of premature and young babies in unprecedented detail.

Director of the Perinatal Research Centre, Professor Paul Colditz, said the new machine would allow researchers to gather much more comprehensive information about babies’ growth and nutritional requirements, to give them a better start at life.

“To date, the standard measurements have been things like weight, length and circumference, and they are all done routinely and are good sort of clinical indicators.

“But with the Pea Pod, we’re able to also determine the baby’s volume…. and with it, a measure that tells us how much of the body is fat and how much is everything else – that is, potentially muscle and bone,” Professor Colditz said.

Babies will be measured using the machine’s non-invasive air displacement technology at birth, six weeks, and three months of age.

For the many newborns predicted to have difficulties related to premature birth each year, the seven-minute scans could provide a significant breakthrough in helping to discriminate risk factors and deliver new answers on how best to manage their nutrition to maximise their growth.

“If you’re born prematurely you’ll have on average a fairly stormy period over the first few weeks, but if you’re in a neonatal intensive care unit then you’ll survive,” Professor Colditz said.

“However, you’re at increased risk of problems with development… and the whole relationship between nutrition, brain growth, and development is one that we just haven’t had the tools to sort out in the way we need.

“So we’re certainly looking at using it to study pre-term babies with the idea that we’ll improve the capacity to try and tailor the nutritional management for an individual baby, to give it the best chance in its development.”

Working with Associate Professor Leonie Callaway (RBWH), Professor Nick Martin (Queensland Institute of Medical Research) and Associate Professor Peter Davies (Director of UQ’s Children’s Nutrition Research Centre, Royal Children’s Hospital), Professor Colditz will also utilise the new data in two key studies.

The first of these projects is looking at how obesity in pregnancy – a factor in one-in-three Australian births – impacts on the health of the baby and its development.

“The entry criteria is obviously obese women when they’re pregnant, and participants either do whatever they normally do, or are put into an intervention arm where there’s an exercise program and nutritional advice.

“There are obviously a whole lot of things you can measure on the mum in terms of what benefit the exercise program is having in relation to her, but the foetus and the newborn infant are the key… essentially we’re interested in how these factors modulate infant growth.”

Through a twin study, the researchers are also looking at how genes and environmental factors respectively affect growth.

“With infants it’s the same paradigm as in adults – how much is it what you eat and how much is it what’s going on in your body that’s programmed in there by the genes,” Professor Colditz explains.

“That question’s certainly not clearly addressed at all in early infancy, but by using this twin model where some twins are identical, so they’ve got similar if not identical sets of genes, versus a group of twins that have much less genetic similarity… we can start to draw more of an understanding about how genes and conversely, the environment, impact on how you grow as a baby.”

With only three other machines currently being applied in these areas around the world, Professor Colditz said UQ researchers were leading the way in untangling some of the most important questions concerning infant growth and development.

Media: For more information contact Professor Paul Colditz (07 3636 1761 or p.colditz@uq.edu.au) or Lucy Manderson at UQ Communications (07 3365 2339 or l.manderson@uq.edu.au).