Waikato doctor's groundbreaking gel to help newborns

Gel solution: Doctors Phil Weston and Deborah Harris are the brains behind a new study on ways to help babies born with low amounts of glucose in their blood - through this simple gel, which can be rubbed into the insides of their mouths.
Gel solution: Doctors Phil Weston and Deborah Harris are the brains behind a new study on ways to help babies born with low amounts of glucose in their blood - through this simple gel, which can be rubbed into the insides of their mouths.

Newborn babies around the world are going to benefit from a groundbreaking research project conducted at Waikato Hospital.

Known as the Sugar Babies Study, details the 2008 to 2010 investigation by Waikato neonatal nurse practitioner Dr Deborah Harris and Dr Phil Weston were published today in The Lancet, the world's best-known, oldest and most respected medical journal.

The study investigated treatment for babies who have low blood glucose concentration (hypoglycaemia) - a condition that puts them at greater risk for brain injuries.

The research findings revealed that the simple use of a dextrose gel, rubbed into the inside of the baby's mouth, meant that the babies were more likely to remain with their mothers rather than being admitted to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for treatment.

It also meant they were more likely to be successfully breast fed.

The publishing of the study and its findings had big implications for the care of newborns in hospitals around the world, she said.

''We expect the information to have wide international uptake and to be easily and cheaply adopted in clinical settings, regardless of resource availability,'' Dr Harris said. ''Sugar Babies is a randomised controlled trial looking to determine whether a dextrose gel can reverse neonatal hypoglycaemia. It was important that the focus of my studies be something that would benefit babies and their families.''

Few medical professionals in their entire career had their work published in The Lancet - but that accolade was not why she was overjoyed.

''We have the opportunity to alter treatment around the world. The main thing is that this will help to keep mums and their bubs together, at a time when they most need to be. I'm really proud and excited that what we have done here is on the international platform.''

Waikato District Health Board chief operating officer Jan Adams said the story in The Lancet was a substantial achievement and was credit to Dr Harris' enormous contribution to nursing in New Zealand.

''She was the first nurse practitioner appointment by the Nursing Council in 2001. The Sugar Babies Study was a major part of her PhD, conferred earlier this year."

Dr Weston, a neonatal paediatrician and a senior lecturer at Auckland University's Waikato Clinical School of Medicine, said the families of all the babies involved had been invited to take part in a further study titled Children with Hypoglycaemia and their Later Development (CHYLD), which was also largely based in Hamilton and had attracted international support.

''There is much enthusiasm for what we have started here around the world.''

Distinguished Professor Jane Harding provided the overall leadership for the Sugar Babies study from the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute, and she has also taken a leading role in the subsequent CHYLD study.

Drs Harris and Weston said much of their success was due to the efforts and co-operation of the to Waikato Hospital's NICU, delivery suite, postnatal services and the region's independent midwives. 

''We must also say how grateful we are to the families involved in the Sugar Babies study,'' said Dr Harris.

The Waikato Medical Research Foundation and other charities provided financial support for the project.

Waikato