Hope for babies starved of oxygen at birth

Kahli Sargent loved going fast in a car or boat, everyone knew she loved it—which is surprising, because her mother was told by doctors at birth that she would never communicate.

Kahli Sargent

“Kahli’s laughter was unreal, she might not have been able to talk, but she certainly could communicate with everyone around her. She was a strong and courageous girl,” said her mother Kendra.

Kahli was starved of vital oxygen at birth, resulting in massive brain damage and cerebral palsy.

Her love of life and everything fast became even clearer after the family moved to Echuca when she was seven, to escape life-threatening infections from colds and flus brought on by Melbourne’s winters.

“Kahli loved the warmth and the freedom of not wearing layers of clothing in her wheelchair, and, of course, speed. We could drive freely down the highways in Echuca and go out on a speed boat on the Murray River—the faster we went, the more she giggled.

“Even at home, the faster her brother pushed her in the wheelchair, the more she laughed,” said Kendra.

“They say a mother instinctively knows what her child needs, but it was more than that. Kahli communicated with everyone—her teachers, other kids and neighbours. People would always look to me for help when they first met Kahli, but it never took long before they were communicating directly with her,” she said.

Sadly, Kahli passed away in 2012, aged just 17.

“If Kahli could have been given a treatment in those early hours, her condition and quality of life could have been better. Those early hours are crucial, anything that can be done to prevent further damage matters for the child and the family,” Kendra said.

Madison Paton

Kahli Sargent research studentship grant

To improve outcomes for other young people with cerebral palsy and their families, and in memory of Kahli, her grandparents have established the Kahli Sargent Research Studentship grant at Hudson Institute.

The studentship will support a PhD student to undertake medical research that will assist in understanding the brain injury that underlies cerebral palsy, and in finding new therapies that could decrease the severity, or even cure cerebral palsy.

“When Kahli was born, we wondered about medical research and if it could help her,” said her grandmother.

“As she grew and things gotworse for her, we often thought that if there had been something better for her in the early days it would have helped. Kahli didn’t get that chance, but if there’s hope for other children and families to have a better future, we want that,” she said.

“This was an inheritance from my mother, Kahli’s great-grandmother. She made and donated many patchwork quilts to the Royal Children’s Hospital and Echuca Regional Hospital, so this would make her happy.”

Promising treatment

Madison Paton, a PhD student at The Ritchie Centre, is the recipient of the Kahli Sargent Research Studentship.

Madison’s work is focused on umbilical cord blood stem cells, which are providing a promising treatment for preterm brain injury caused by infection during pregnancy, referred to as chorioamnionitis. Infection during pregnancy is a large contributor to the brain injury that leads to cerebral palsy, particularly in babies born preterm.

“We are extremely hopeful that umbilical cord blood stem cells could be a treatment option, not only for preterm babies exposed to infection, but also for those starved of oxygen at birth, like Kahli,” said Madison.

 

“There is a critical need to develop a treatment for babies exposed to infection during pregnancy and to protect their brain soon after birth. All research to date indicates that umbilical cord blood stem cells may protect the immature brain from the long-term effects of exposure to infection during critical periods of development. If we can show that these cells are beneficial in preterm babies with brain injury, we can start to understand how stem cells can be used to prevent cerebral palsy.

“My PhD studies will establish how beneficial umbilical cord blood stem cells are at reducing the progression of preterm brain injury and potentially whether, one day, cerebral palsy could be cured or prevented with a cell treatment.”

L-R: Dr Beth Allison, Professor Michael Fahey, Miss Madison Paton, Associate Professor Suzie Miller, Professor Graham Jenkin, Dr Courtney McDonald

Madison is completing her PhD under the supervision of a team of experts at The Ritchie Centre, including Associate Professor Suzanne Miller, Professor Graham Jenkin, Dr Courtney McDonald, Dr Beth Allison and Associate Professor Michael Fahey, who leads the Paediatric Neurology clinic at Monash Health.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebral palsy is an umbrella term that refers to the motor and postural impairments associated with damage to the developing brain. Cerebral palsy can result from injury sustained in utero, at or around the time of birth, or up until one month of age. These times correlate with critical periods of brain development, and when disrupted, this can lead to damage.

In Australia, a child is born with a brain injury that underlies cerebral palsy every 15 hours. It is the most common disability in childhood. While the causes of brain injury can vary, the largest contributor to cerebral palsy is preterm birth. In addition, up to 70 per cent of these preterm births have been complicated with an infection during pregnancy. The effects of a baby being exposed to infection, born too early and with no current treatment options, has meant that rates of cerebral palsy have remained static for decades.

Children with cerebral palsy not only have difficulty with movement, but also experience a range of other impairments, including difficulty talking, or with vision, sleeping and behaviour.

Cerebral palsy facts

  • Around 10 per cent of all babies in Australia are born preterm.
  • Worldwide, an estimated more than 15 million babies are born preterm and 1 million die every as a result.
  • Up to 70 per cent of these babies were exposed to infection during gestation.
  • In developed countries like Australia, a lack of oxygen at birth can occur in up to six of every 1000 births. The risk that the child will develop cerebral palsy is very high.
  • Nearly half of all babies treated with the current best-practice therapy of whole-body cooling, to reduce inflammation and interrupt brain injury, will still die or suffer lifelong disability.

Stem cells, what makes them so special?

The human body is made up of more than 200 different kinds of specialised cells, such as muscle, nerve, fat and skin cells. All specialised cells originate from stem cells.

Stem cells are different from other cells in the body in two main ways. They can

  • Make copies of themselves, or self-renew
  • Differentiate or develop into specialised cells

Stem cells are found in bone marrow, blood or umbilical cord blood, in blood vessels, skeletal muscles, skin and the liver.

What is stem cell therapy?

Stem cell therapy is a treatment that uses stem cells to replace or repair a patient’s cells or tissues that are damaged. The stem cells might be put into the blood, or transplanted into the damaged tissue directly. These transplants can be from the patient’s own cells or from a donor.

How will stem cell therapy be used in cerebral palsy research?

When a baby is growing in its mother’s womb, the umbilical cord is a vital source of life, transferring oxygen and nutrition from the placenta to ensure the baby develops healthily.

Umbilical cord blood is a rich source of stem cells that can be used in research and in the clinic to treat diseases of the blood and immune system.

In a world-first study, our scientists are examining whether umbilical cord blood stem cells, given intravenously, could protect the brain from damage and ‘kickstart’ the process of repair after exposure to infection in utero.

For babies like Kahli born at term, it is feasible that their own cord blood could be used for treatment of brain injury. However, preterm babies would require a donor, as they are often born small and therefore collection volumes of blood are low. Finding healthy donor cells to treat the preterm brain following injury is an ideal therapeutic strategy and uses blood from the umbilical cord, which is discarded soon after healthy babies are delivered.


Donation supports research into cerebral palsy

This thoughtful and generous donation, in memory of Kahli Sargent, will make a real difference in finding new therapies that may decrease the severity of cerebral palsy or even find a cure.

Many of our research groups are working to improve outcomes for premature and newborn babies, and funding for this research is vital. If you would like to support research in an area that is of special interest to you, please contact Hudson Institute’s Head of Philanthropy and Fundraising on +61 3 8572 2701 or email hudson.foundation@hudson.org.au for a confidential discussion. All donations are tax deductible.


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