New Zealand’s top science honour has been awarded to distinguished Professor Jane Harding, for work that she says “makes things better for mothers and babies, not just before and around the time of the birth, but for the rest of their lives.”
The University of Auckland and Liggin’s Institute researcher is only the fourth women to win the Rutherford Medal in its 29-year history.
Here are some excerpts from Professor Jane Harding’s interview on Our Changing World.
What is your area of research?
"My speciality is neonatology – new-born babies - and for most of my career I have both worked clinically in the new-born intensive care unit and also done research.
"I was attracted to paediatrics because I really liked the way children got very sick very quickly, but got better very quickly. And you could … make such a difference, not just now, but for the whole family and for the rest of their lives."
Tell me about your work with babies and glucose?
"The problem with glucose levels in babies - both high and low glucose levels - is one that's been puzzling clinicians around the world for as long as we've known how to measure glucose in babies.
"Our focus has mostly been about low glucose levels. This is a problem that's really common in new-born babies. As many, perhaps, as a third of all babies born are born at risk of low glucose levels - [especially] babies who are born small, or large, or preterm, or whose mothers have diabetes.
"Those babies have about a 50 percent chance of having low glucose. And the real problem with that is that glucose is the major fuel for the brain.
"So, in a baby, who has a relatively big brain, if blood glucose is low there's a chance that the brain won't have enough fuel, and that can lead to brain injury.
"The main treatment, if the baby's glucose was low and it didn't respond to feeding, [used to be] to give intravenous glucose by drip. And that of course requires the baby being in an intensive care unit and separating it from the mother, which makes it difficult to breastfeed - very stressful for all concerned.
"So we started by trialling a sugar gel, a simple sugar solution in a gel form, that could be rubbed inside the baby's cheek.
"And we showed in a very large trial that indeed it was effective and safe.
"And not only did it help keep babies out of intensive care units for low glucose levels, but it actually improved breastfeeding. Keeping babies with mothers and taking some of the stress away clearly made a difference to breastfeeding levels. That was tremendously exciting.”
From treatment to prevention
"At the same time, we were working on the other part of the problem, which is how low does the glucose have to be in babies to cause problems. We were looking at babies who've had low glucose levels and those who haven't, and what happened to them as they grew up. And we studied these children repeatedly.
"And we showed that when they were around four and a half, children who had [experienced] even one low glucose level that we didn't know about clinically and didn't treat, were more likely to have some problems.
"So, we moved on to say … ‘could we use the same simple, safe sugar gel to prevent [and not just treat] low glucose levels?’ And it seems that we probably can. We are just waiting for the results of a very large study to see whether that also helps keep babies out of intensive care and whether it changes long term outcomes."
Prof Harding’s work on the regulation of a baby's growth before and after birth has led to paradigm changes in the field. For example, she has shown that remarkably brief changes in maternal nutrition during pregnancy can alter a baby’s growth, metabolism and hormones in ways that alter the risk of metabolic disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes in adult life.
She has also shown that undernutrition in the mother around the time of conception can cause preterm birth, and that poor foetal growth can be treated even before birth.
She provided the first evidence in humans that widely-used treatments given to pregnant women can have implications for the later health of their adult offspring.
Prof Harding also uncovered a previously unknown association between a routinely-used therapy for extremely preterm babies – chest percussion – and severe brain damage. Her careful progress from clinical observation to confirming chest percussion causes brain damage has been a major contribution to improved neonatal care in the world.
Prof Harding was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2002 and elected a Fellow of Royal Society Te Apārangi in 2001. She is the recipient of many awards.
More on the 2019 Research Honours winners
You can find the full list of 2019 award winners on the Royal Society – Te Apārangi website