Irish team finds promising early-warning test for newborn brain injury

7 Jan 2019

Image: © Phattana/

A team from INFANT has identified blood biomarkers that may act as an early-warning system for potential brain injury in newborns.

The umbilical cord is a vital connection between a mother and child, providing oxygen-rich blood to the foetus during development. But in some children, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) can occur, whereby the brain doesn’t develop properly due to a lack of oxygen, resulting in permanent neurological damage or cerebral palsy.

As you would expect, the earlier HIE is spotted in a newborn child, the better their chances are of an improved life, with the child’s brain being cooled as soon as the condition is discovered, in order to reduce injury.

To that end, researchers at the Irish Centre for Foetal and Neonatal Translation Research (INFANT) have discovered two blood biomarkers found in the umbilical cord that could provide a necessary early-detection system for HIE.

The findings, published to the Journal of the American Medical Association, confirmed the involvement of two microRNAs in HIE. These small strands of genetic code control gene expression and protein production in the cell. While found throughout the body, these biomarkers are found in abundance in the umbilical cord. However, in a newborn with HIE, there is a significant decrease in these biomarkers, thereby helping to quickly diagnose it.

Led by University College Cork’s Prof Deirdre Murray, the research showed similar results across two different cohorts in Ireland and Sweden, and she described this as “very promising”.

“The next task will be automating this analysis so that it can be done rapidly at the cotside. We are still researching these microRNA to understand if they have an important role in the cascade of injury which occurs in HIE,” she said. “They are tiny nuclear codes which act like passwords to control the production of proteins in the cell. Some of these proteins may have important roles.”

The study was supported by funding from the Health Research Board and the National Children’s Research Centre. It is the result of almost 10 years of study in the area of early brain injury.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic