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Teaspoons of treatment for the tiniest of patients | Atul Malhotra, Monash University

February 08, 2023

Extremely premature babies’ own stem cells could hold the key to a new treatment for brain injury associated with preterm birth. 

Monash University researcher Associate Professor Atul Malhotra, backed by the Foundation, is leading a clinical trial to evaluate the safety and feasibility of this treatment in 20 patients before proceeding to larger trials.

The treatment uses stem cells taken from as little as seven millilitres of umbilical cord blood – a crucial consideration with patients who weigh 500 grams or less.

The Foundation is supporting the trial through the Matched Funding Program, with $50,000 contributed by a private individual donor, matched dollar-for-dollar by the Foundation.

Atul has seen firsthand the problems of extreme prematurity in his role as consultant neonatologist at Monash Children’s Hospital.

“We have to work really hard to keep them alive to start with. But we’re hoping to give them a life that is fulfilling and without major disabilities,” says Atul.

Advances in medicine mean more preterm babies are surviving than ever before, but there are no effective therapies to prevent or treat preterm brain injury.

More than 3,000 very preterm babies are born every year in Australia. While this represents less than one per cent of all births, their complex medical conditions represent a huge cost to the healthcare system and community.

Up to half of all babies born before 28 weeks will have a developmental problem. Around 10 per cent will have cerebral palsy and 20 to 30 per cent will have a learning disability or behavioural problem.

Atul and his colleagues initially received seed funding from the Cerebral Palsy Alliance three years ago to explore the potential to harvest blood from suitable preterm babies and extract stem cells.

“A baby’s first blood cells are a rich mixture,” Atul says. “They have cells that have healing properties that can dampen inflammation and repair damaged tissues.”

His team has been able to extract enough cells to provide a dose of cell therapy in seven to nine millilitres of harvested cord blood – a little under two teaspoons’ worth – in 70 per cent of patients, detailed in a newly published journal article.

“We believe these cells will be able to repair or prevent some of the brain injury they’re at risk of acquiring,” Atul says.

“Cerebral palsy is the most recognisable, or most common, physical disability in preterm babies but we also believe the therapy will be helpful for the other problems, such as learning, and general behaviour.”

He believes there may also be ‘off target’ benefits of these cells on other parts of the body, such as the lungs and heart.

He praised the Stem Cell Foundation for supporting the small, early trials.

“These stepping stone studies are vitally important but they’re not well supported by funding bodies!”

If all goes well, this study will lead to an international randomised control trial for efficacy with around 200 to 300 babies in Australia and the US.

Donations from the public allow the Foundation to keep funding our half of the contribution to important treatment research projects selected for our Matched Funding Program. If you would like to support us with a donation, visit:


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