Babies can’t wear a helmet when they are being born – but perhaps they’d like one, even if their mothers wouldn’t. A baby is more vulnerable during birth than at any other time of their life; there are plenty of things that can go wrong. Lack of oxygen is one big danger. If for any reason oxygen is cut off to the baby they may suffer brain damage, leading to cerebral palsy, disability or death.
One of the issues with reduced oxygen supply is that it’s very hard to know until the last minutes of a birth if something is going wrong. The umbilical cord might wrap around the baby’s neck, or the womb might rupture. Once the baby is born, oxygen supply is restored, but by that stage the brain may already have sustained damage. About 100 babies a year in New Zealand suffer the long-term consequences of this damage (hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy or HIE for short). In some countries HIE is a leading reason for birth-related lawsuits, and worldwide, caring for the victims comes with a long-term societal cost.
A Kiwi doctor and scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman and a team of physicians in New Zealand and around the world have invented a treatment for oxygen deprivation in newborns – a small cap that costs just $100. The cap works by pumping cool water around the affected baby’s head for the first few days of their life. This cools the head and brain down from the normal 37.8°C to 34°C – the rest of the body is kept warm, but the cooling of the brain puts it into an almost hibernation state. This slows the brain processes and stops the damaged cells from dying off.
A co-ordinated worldwide trial during the mid-2000s showed that the cap significantly reduced long-term damage caused by oxygen deprivation at birth. The viability of the treatment, and the cap, was proven. Gluckman’s team's priority was to get this life-saving device out to the world as quickly and cheaply as possible, so they sold the licence to a US company which sells the ‘Cool-Caps’ at a very accessible price. With the all-important FDA approval now in place, Gluckman’s team’s invention is set to save thousands of babies and parents a year from a life of hardship.
As with many inventions, the team were initially studying the effects of cooling as part of their research on a completely different topic when they realised that the results they were seeing could be used to prevent brain damage. Since then, other researchers have taken the idea of cooling the body even further, and the technique is now gaining even broader usage in medicine. Gluckman himself went on to further promote the use of science and medicine to the wider public when he became Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister.