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Helping preterm babies get the best treatments to combat infection

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Around 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year and tragically, more than 1,000 die as a result of being born too soon. [1,2] Bacterial infections are especially dangerous for preterm babies and sadly can result in loss of life or serious lifelong disabilities. Dr Deena Gibbons of King’s College London is aiming to improve our understanding of how the immune system of preterm babies reacts to bacterial infection. She hopes this knowledge will lead to new tests that can help doctors to prevent and treat infections more effectively in this vulnerable group of babies, helping save lives and reduce life-changing complications

How are children’s lives affected now?

Around one in every 13 babies in the UK is born prematurely – before 37 weeks of pregnancy have been completed.1,2 Bacterial infections are a particular risk for these tiny infants during their first few weeks of life.

“Sadly, many preterm babies will lose their lives due to a severe bacterial infection,” says Dr Gibbons. “And those who survive repeated infection may be left with life-changing disabilities, such as cerebral palsy.”

But it is difficult to confirm an infection, as the normal tests are hard to interpret in preterm babies. Because doctors need to be very cautious with this vulnerable group, some babies may receive antibiotics when they might not need them or be treated for longer than necessary.

“This is not ideal as antibiotics themselves can contribute to other serious complications in newborn babies,” says Dr Gibbons. “And the unnecessary use of these medicines could also fuel the development of resistant strains of bacteria – putting future lives at risk.”

How could this research help?

“Our aim is to improve our understanding of how the preterm immune system reacts to life-threatening bacterial infections, which will be crucial for developing new ways to improve outcomes for these vulnerable babies,” says Dr Gibbons.

The researchers will study how the immune system is working in a series of blood samples that they have collected from nearly 150 preterm babies, many of whom had experienced a confirmed infection.

“We hope to identify specific features that could be used to diagnose a bacterial infection – so that doctors can prescribe the most appropriate treatment for each child,” says Dr Gibbons.

The researchers will also look for differences in the immune systems of preterm babies who later go on to develop a serious infection.

“Ultimately, we hope this will lead to new tests that can help identify babies who may be at higher risk of developing a severe infection so that steps can be taken to help protect them in the critical, first few weeks of life,” says Dr Gibbons.


  1. Office for National Statistics, Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages - 2018 [website accessed 04 Dec 2019]
  2. National Institute for Clinical Excellence: Preterm labour and birth final scope, April 2013:

Research table

Project details

Project Leader Dr Deena L Gibbons, PhD
Location Peter Gorer Department of Immunobiology, King’s College London
Project Team Dr Paul F Fleming, PhD FRCP
Other Locations Neonatal Unit, Homerton University NHS Trust, London
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £107,918
Start Date
End Date
Duration 18 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN2790


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