B.C. Women's hospital preemie baby biobank first of its kind in Canada

Doctors hope the research and cord blood can be used to study diseases and infections related to premature babies in a non-invasive way.

Doctors hope cord blood can be used to study diseases and infections affecting premature babies

Baby Coulson McRae was born prematurely and is spending the first weeks of his life at B.C. Women's Hospital. (Harold Dupuis/CBC News)

Unique research is taking place at B.C. Women's Hospital and one of the doctors taking part says it's the first of its kind in Canada. 

Dr. Pascal Lavoie, a neonatologist involved in the research, says while other hospitals around the country have been working on similar studies, B.C. is the first province to open a preemie biobank for this type of work.

He says it's non-invasive research that uses cord blood from premature babies pre-term delivery to study diseases and infections — a discovery type of research that can lead to further investigations.

Lavoie says these samples, collected with the authorization of willing parents, would otherwise be discarded and wasted but have the potential to effect life altering changes.

He says the premature baby cells are unique, because they are still in their early developmental stage.

Lavoie said premature cells act as the first building blocks and are, therefore, malleable and could lead to unexpected discoveries, not just for babies but well into adulthood.

"[It's] research that we hope will bring solutions to some of the medical complications that premature babies encounter shortly after they're born," said Lavoie.

PhD student Christina Michalski is joined by neonatologist Dr. Pascal Lavoi to research premature baby cord blood. (CBC News)

The doctor says one in six premature babies in Canada will develop a serious blood born infection in their first two to four weeks of life, and he wants to make sure more parents know this research is an option, so he can work at finding answers and solutions.

Eight per cent of babies are born premature, so that's a lot of babies with infection- Pascal Lavoie, neonatologist at B.C. Women's Hospital

Researchers say the same work cannot be done with adult cells, since so many different cells work in concert that it's impossible to pinpoint the origins and functions of each. But, when it comes to premature babies born at 33 weeks or prior, their cells are still developing.

Lavoie says although research in this field has been happening over the last 10 years at B.C. Women's Hospital, the preemie biobank just launched earlier this year. 

It is funded through traditional research grants from federal and provincial levels of government, as well as from the hospital itself.

Amanda McRae's baby was born premature and is living at the hospital as he continues to grow stronger. She donated her son's cord blood to be researched.

"They go through a lot at this age, so with the biobank I'm hoping that in the future they can do less poking and prodding and more just it's a simple solution and be able to fix it without having to dig around and make them go through more," said McRae.

Right now, Lavoie said the hospital gets about one or two samples a week to research, but it's looking for more. The samples can be frozen and stored for several years, and he's putting out a call to expecting parents to think about giving their cord blood up for research if their babies are born premature — research that may help them find answers for themselves or other parents in the future.

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