Northern Ireland can become world leaders in preventing congenital heart disease
An ambitious research project to prevent congenital heart disease in babies has the potential to make Northern Ireland a world leader in this scientific field.
The three-year project, starting next month in Belfast, aims to study 1,200 babies to determine what factors lead to the life threatening conditions in over 200 babies born here each year.
It's estimated that over 224,000 babies worldwide died in 2010 from congenital heart conditions, that's problems with babies hearts that occur while still in the womb.
The research will put Northern Ireland on the map regarding this important area of medicine, potentially saving babies at home and throughout the world in future years.
Known as The Baby Hearts Study, the pioneering research supported by Northern Ireland Chest, Heart and Stroke needs £172,000 to fund it for three years.
The Belfast Telegraph has nominated this study as its annual Christmas charity appeal in the hope readers will make a significant contribution towards the target.
Led by principal investigator, Professor Helen Dolk, from the University of Ulster, the study is a collaboration between the University's Centre for Maternal, Fetal and Infant Research and Paediatric Cardiologists at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children.
Prof Dolk said: "The aim of our research is to increase scientific knowledge about the environmental causes of congenital heart disease operating in very early pregnancy, perhaps before the mother even knows she is pregnant.
"This will help put preventive strategies in place, so that many of these babies in future can be born with healthy hearts. It would make Northern Ireland one of the world centres for research into the causes of congenital heart disease."
Over the next three years, researchers intend to gather information about early pregnancy from the mothers of 400 babies of congenital heart disease, and the mothers of 800 babies without congenital heart disease.
Prof Dolk said: "Our ambition is also to raise awareness in Northern Ireland that congenital heart disease can be prevented so that we can convert research results to real progress in making sure babies are born with the best chances in life."
Prof Dolk said that scientists had reason to believe there might be environmental causes of congenital heart disease but these are not known with certainty.
One of the known causes is diabetes in mothers.
"So if we could find the causes we would be able to put preventative strategies in place," said Prof Dolk. "It is a matter of comparing the environmental and lifestyle factors in early pregnancy between those with congenital heart disease and those without congenital heart disease."