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Better Care for Babies

Sanford Children’s researcher Michelle Baack, MD, approaches her work like a pediatrician because that is what she is.

Dr. Baack is director of a lab doing groundbreaking research into the way fatty acids help babies’ brains and vascular systems develop. But she also treats the hospital’s tiniest patients, premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit.

As a scientist and perinatal-neonatal specialist, she knows the work her lab is doing will have immediate impact on the vulnerable babies in her care, she says.

“We’re looking at a problem and seeing ways that we can solve it,” she says, viewing microscope slides on a large computer screen. “I get to see not only the science behind my work, but the changes that we will see with the babies right here in Sanford’s NICU.”

Answering her questions

Dr. Baack, a former general pediatrician, had been interested in the way that nutrition tied into development long before she became a researcher. She’d seen the problems that were caused by poor nutrition, but wondered if more could be done to prevent them.

As a scientist, she began studies looking into the ways docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a long chain polyunsaturated fatty acid (LCPUFA) effects babies’ growth, brain development and vascular health. Her lab at Sanford Research is doing several projects today researching how fatty acids effect a baby’s development during both pregnancy and infancy.

After three years of initial scientific study into how Omega-3 fatty acid supplements can be used to help premature infants, the Baack Lab is preparing for a clinical trial that will bring the science directly to her young patients. Premature babies at Sanford Health in Sioux Falls will soon have the option of participating in a study to help determine if and how DHA supplements can make their lives better.

More than just survival

Over 550,000 babies are born prematurely every year in the United States, and science is helping them survive at earlier and earlier ages, says Dr. Baack. Her research is showing that a deficiency of DHA in these tiny infants may be leading to a variety of both health and developmental problems.

Premature babies often struggle with inflammatory diseases including bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD), necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) and retinopathy of prematurity (ROP) that can have lasting effects on the lungs, bowel and vision. They also have a higher risk of learning and visual problems throughout life.

“We’ve been able to improve the survival of premature babies, but the number with disabilities has been increasing,” says Dr. Baack. “Our study will help us come up with concrete ways to improve these babies’ outcomes.”

While everyone knows that DHA helps infants – it’s even included in many brands of infant formula – no one is sure how much is needed to be truly effective, the researcher says. The study will help doctors learn how much DHA supplementation is safe and leads to good results.

A new study

Dr. Baack’s other research may also change the way that doctors look at diet and infant development for mothers with diabetes, she says. Her lab is preparing the results of animal studies that look into the way that a diabetic mother’s diet effects heart development. Initial studies are showing that mothers with treated diabetes who eat diets high in unhealthy fats seem to cause serious problems for their growing babies. They tend to have fertility issues and higher rates of stillborn babies. Those babies who do make it to delivery have significantly higher rates of heart disease, and this risk extends into adulthood.

“Their babies are being born with enlarged hearts and poor functioning hearts,” she says, pointing to red circles of fat that show up on a microscope slide. “The problem is not the rats’ glucose with diabetes, but their triglyceride levels.”

The next step will be to publish the research and conduct new studies into ways to treat the problem. Dr. Baack said she’s excited to be working on areas of research that could change the ways that pregnant women look at their prenatal diet. “This kind of research is so important to mothers everywhere,” she says.

The researcher says she loves to be able to both research this important topic and then bring the results directly to babies. It is just one more way that Sanford Research improves life for families everyday, she says.

“The whole purpose of research science is to improve patient care,” Dr. Baack says. “We’re doing things everyday at Sanford to bring the research to these babies and their families. It’s an incredible job and I love doing it.”

Sanford Health Foundation provides funds to support important research initiatives at Sanford Research. Join Sanford Health in changing the landscape of health care and research, and make a gift today.

Posted Date: August 2012