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Reducing the risk of infections from breathing tubes in preterm babies

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Research Training Fellowship*: Dr Shin Tan

Each year, around 55,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK.[1-2] Infections are a major cause of death and serious illness in preterm babies – and poor long-term outcomes for survivors. These infections can often occur while babies are receiving life-saving treatment in intensive care due to microbes present in the medical devices used to support their health. Dr Shin Tan of the University of Nottingham is aiming to incorporate newly developed antimicrobial polymer coatings onto breathing tubes used for ventilation. She hopes this will help prevent life-threatening infections, saving lives and offering a brighter future for preterm babies and their families.

How are children’s lives affected now?

While all newborn babies are at risk of developing infections, preterm babies are particularly vulnerable. As their immune systems are not fully matured, they may not be able to effectively fight off bacteria, viruses or fungi that get inside the body.

“Sadly, preterm babies who develop late-onset infections can lose their lives,” says Dr Tan. “Survivors can be left with lifelong disabilities that affect their lungs and brain, which can severely impact their quality of life.”

Late-onset infections, which occur more than 72 hours after birth, can often occur while the babies are in intensive care units and are linked to microbes that normally live on the skin entering the body from medical devices, such as breathing tubes. While life-saving, these devices can often become coated with biofilms* – increasing the risk of infections.

Finding ways to help prevent preterm babies from developing infections could help save lives and reduce the risk of long-term complications.

Dr Tan

How could this research help?

“We aim to incorporate antimicrobial polymer coatings onto breathing tubes that can help reduce the ability of microbes to ‘stick’ to the walls and form biofilms,” says Dr Tan.

The researchers will use a recently developed rapid and cost-effective polymer identification platform to develop and test candidate materials suitable for coating breathing tubes in the laboratory.

“We hope to identify coatings that can effectively suppress biofilm formation by microbes that often cause infections in newborn babies,” says Dr Tan.

The team will then conduct a small clinical study to determine the effectiveness of the coating in reducing biofilm formation on breathing tubes used in newborn babies.

This study will lay the foundations for a future larger clinical trial to evaluate if these coatings are effective at reducing infections and improving long-term outcomes in preterm babies.

Dr Tan

As these polymer coatings do not contain antibiotics, they also offer several advantages of reducing the usage of antibiotics, and lowering the risk of the development of resistant strains of bacteria.  

*Biofilms are microbial communities that are firmly anchored to surfaces. These slimy structures provide a protective barrier for the microbes living inside, helping them to evade destruction from antibiotics or the immune system.


  1. Office for National Statistics, Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages - 2021 [website accessed 17 April 2024]
  1. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence - Preterm labour and birth final scope April 2013 [website accessed 20 June 2023]

*Research Training Fellowships

Each year, Action Medical Research awards these prestigious grants to help the brightest and best doctors and scientists develop their career in medical research.

Research table

Project details

Project Leader Dr Shin H Tan, BMBS MRCPCH
Location Centre for Perinatal Research, School of Medicine, University of Nottingham
Project Team Professor Don Sharkey, BMedSci BMBS PhD FRCPCH
Professor Morgan Alexander, PhD
Professor Paul Williams, PhD
Professor Derek Irvine, PhD
Other Locations Biomedical Surfaces, School of Pharmacy, University of Nottingham
Centre for Biomolecular Sciences and School of Life Sciences, University of Nottingham
Faculty of Engineering, University of Nottingham
Grant Awarded
Grant Amount £274,690
Start Date TBC
End Date TBC
Duration 36 months
Grant Code (GN number) GN3030


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