Academic honoured for pioneering cooling treatment on babies

11 October 2017
Image of Professor Alistair Gunn
Professor Alistair Gunn

Professor Alistair Gunn, who pioneered the use of mild cooling to treat babies with brain injuries at birth, has been awarded the Health Research Council (HRC) Beaven Medal at the Royal Society Te Apārangi’s New Zealand Research Honours in Auckland last night.

Professor Gunn, Head of the Department of Physiology, was the first to show that even very delayed cooling could reduce brain injury in large animals around the time of birth, and to systematically work out how and when cooling needed to be applied to protect a newborn baby’s brain from damage.

At least 1 million babies worldwide die or survive with disability from lack of oxygen to the brain at birth, a condition known as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy. In New Zealand, it’s estimated that between 50 and 70 babies have moderate to severe brain injury at birth because of this.

The cooling treatment that Professor Gunn and his team have developed and modified has reduced the number of children with cerebral palsy due to birth complications in New Zealand by six to eight per year, saving an estimated $230 million to $385 million in lifetime costs each year.

Professor Gunn said therapeutic hypothermia is a triumph for pragmatic Kiwi science.

“This award recognises the efforts not just of our team but also our many friends and collaborators in New Zealand and around the world, over several decades, to bring it from an interesting observation to everyday use,” said Professor Gunn.

“I’m particularly grateful to the families who let their babies take part in the first randomised trials at a time when deliberately cooling babies was still a radical suggestion, and for the generous and consistent support of the Health Research Council of New Zealand from the very start. Finally, I’d like to acknowledge the Auckland Medical Research Foundation who supported our first cooling machine.”

Dean of Medical and Health Sciences, Professor John Fraser, says the award is deserved recognition for Professor Gunn’s life-changing work.

“I am thrilled that Professor Gunn has received the Bevan Medal.  His and his colleagues’ tireless efforts, towards this research have benefited many babies and will continue to do so for years to come. He is a huge asset to the medical fraternity.”

HRC Chief Executive Professor Kath McPherson presented Professor Gunn with the Beaven Medal for excellence in translational research at a ceremony in Auckland last night. She said his world-first study and subsequent clinical trials meant that mild cooling was now the standard of care for treating babies with brain injury due to low oxygen levels in New Zealand and around the world.

“Alistair’s research, which the HRC is proud to have supported for more than 25 years, has proven that treatment of babies with brain injury using mild cooling is extremely cheap, effective, practical, and safe. Current head cooling treatment protocols increase survival of those babies without disability and significantly reduce the rate of the most severe complications, such as cerebral palsy, by about 12 per cent,” said Professor McPherson.

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