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Ann Hellström appointed Wallenberg Clinical Scholar

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Baby born pretermProfessor Ann Hellström, Chief Physician and Professor of Pediatric Ophthalmology, is to be a Wallenberg Clinical Scholar. Her research concerns babies born extremely preterm, and she is investigating what is required for these babies’ organs to continue develop normally after birth.

The Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation (KAW) founded its Wallenberg Clinical Scholars program in 2014. In the ten years for which the program is scheduled to run, 25 clinical researchers will receive funding of SEK 15 million for their work, initially for five years and with a possible extension for a further five. KAW’s aim is for this program to strengthen Swedish clinical research and improve the best clinical researchers’ prospects of attaining results that are important in terms of both research and healthcare.

Today, Tuesday 26 March, KAW announced that Professor Ann Hellström is among the five people appointed as Wallenberg Clinical Scholars in 2019.

Professor Ann Hellström, Chief Physician and Professor of Pediatric Ophthalmology“The grant provides peace of mind for the work. I’ve had to spend a great deal of time on describing my research in various applications. Now I get the chance to actually perform my research instead. For me and my research group, this is tremendously good news, as well as for the preterm children we hope to be able to help it is a great chance for better health outcomes” Hellström says.

New research challenges with higher survival rates

Thanks to improved neonatal care, more babies are surviving extremely premature birth. But they have missed several months of the period they would have spent in their mother’s womb and are exposed to other factors not present in utero. This, for many, may result in visual impairments and difficulties in learning, behavior, breathing, and digestion.

One cause of these problems is that neural tissue and blood vessels have not developed completely at time of preterm birth. Through her previous research, Hellström and her colleagues in Gothenburg, Lund, Stockholm and Boston have been able to show that abnormal development of retinal vessels are connected with the babies’ excessively low level of the growth hormone IGF-1. Studies are therefore now underway to find out whether organs like lungs, brain and the eye develop better if they receive a supplement of this growth factor.

Correct blood composition important for preemies

Ann Hellström is an eye specialist and professor of ophthalmology but, in recent years, with her focus on improving premature babies’ (‘preemies’) chances in life as far as possible, she has also carried out research in areas that are associated not solely with the eyes. Today, she is engaged in several studies with focus on fetal blood products.

One hypothesis Hellström aims to test is whether the babies are helped by receiving blood more similar to their own. The majority of preemies need blood transfusions and, on average, recieve as many as seven transfusions during their hospital stay. This might result in problems, since blood from adult donors does not have the same composition as babies’ blood.

Umbilical cord blood a possible way forward

Hellström is therefore planning to implement a study in which blood from umbilical cords is used. Stem cells, used in cancer treatments, are harvested from donated cord blood. To date, there has been no way of using the remaining blood, so it has been discarded. This blood contains fetal red blood cells and plasma — which might be used for the extremely premature babiesinstead of adult red blood cells and adult plasma.

“So instead of that blood being thrown away, we hope to be able to make use of what’s been donated so that it benefits the preemies.”

Other studies connected with this blood involve, in a multicenter study together with researchers from Lund, investigating whether using micromethods (in which only minimal quantities of blood are required for analyses to be performed) reduces morbidities in the tiniest babies. Hellström is also investigating the role played by blood platelets in neural and vascular development, and whether a supplement of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids may benefit these children’s development.

Her research has a long-term objective: “I want to improve as far as possible the prospects, for babies born extremely preterm, of developing in the same way as babies who stay in the womb until their full-term birth.”

More information
Ann Hellström, phone +46 (0)31 343 4720, email ann.hellstrom@medfak.gu.se

All the Wallenberg Clinical Scholars at the University of Gothenburg

  • 2019 Ann Hellström, Chief Physician and Professor of Pediatric Ophthalmology specializing in growth factors
  • 2018 Mats Brännström, Chief Physician and Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • 2016 Claes Ohlsson, Chief Physician and Professor specializing in hormonal regulation of bone growth and metabolism

Photo Ann Hellström: Mikael Sjöberg
Photo preterm baby: Matton stock

More info about Wallenberg Clinical Scholars