Close to eight percent of babies born each year in Canada are born prematurely, with immune systems vulnerable to infection. As a clinician-scientist, Dr. Lavoie encounters and provides care for these babies all the time, placing him in the unique position to link infections he treats with molecules he studies in the lab.
Using resources available at BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the newly opened BC Women’s Hospital Preemie Biobank (funded in part by a WHRI 2018 Catalyst Grant), Dr. Lavoie and his lab have made strides in their ability to study immune cells from premature babies.
“When I did my science training twenty-five years ago, you could interrogate one or a few of [the genes or proteins expressed in a cell] at a time,” Dr. Lavoie explains.
Now, using a series of technologies known as omics, Dr. Lavoie can study how tens of thousands of genes and proteins work within each individual cell in a single experiment. Further, he is now able to run these experiments using as little as half a millilitre of cord blood originating from babies who sometimes weigh less than 400 grams.
This new research project, funded by a CIHR Spring 2019 Project Grant, builds off his team’s recent discovery that the first-line immune pathways meant to detect harmful microbes in premature babies are ‘turned off’ due to a lack of cellular energy.
In most babies, there are cues that turn these immune pathways on, like consuming breast milk or being exposed to beneficial microbes. Dr. Lavoie will test some of these cues in his lab, in vitro, to investigate how the pathways are triggered to generate an immune response.
In the future, Dr. Lavoie believes his team will be well-positioned to take their findings and develop an intervention that will allow them to safely turn these immune pathways on – a feat that will help prevent infections in premature babies.
Learn more about the BC Women’s Hospital Preemie Biobank in recent coverage by the CBC, Vancouver Sun, and CTV.