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Sarah Brown launches £1.5m premature babies care study

A £1.5 million study aimed at improving care for premature babies has been launched by Sarah Brown, wife of former prime minister Gordon Brown.

The Theirworld Edinburgh Birth Cohort will track the development of 400 babies, most of whom are born before 32 weeks, following them through to adulthood.

The research at the University of Edinburgh is being funded by the Theirworld global children's charity, which Mrs Brown founded and is president of.

Mrs Brown, whose first child Jennifer Jane lived for just 10 days after being born seven weeks prematurely, said: "This is a unique project which will help give babies the chance of the best start in life and Theirworld is proud to fund it."

Reflecting on her own experience, she said: "For Gordon and I, when we lost Jennifer, one of the things that I realised then was just how many families have experienced that.

"It's something I wasn't aware of before until it happened to me, and then you realise the vulnerability of pregnancies and of safe births.

"If I look back to the years from when Jennifer was born - the information that we didn't have and couldn't have - so much has changed in medicine already, the outcomes in a British hospital are so different already.

"But, of course, we can do better than that and we want to make sure at Theirworld that every family has the chance to take home their precious longed-for baby."

About 15 million babies across the world are born prematurely - before 37 weeks - making them more at risk of suffering conditions such as cerebral palsy, autism spectrum disorders and learning difficulties.

Researchers at the university will follow 400 premature newborns, who are more at risk of suffering brain damage, collecting biological samples and brain scans as well as information on their educational attainment.

They will use this to help identify the causes and consequences of brain injury at birth but researchers also hope their work will help speed the development of new treatments that could improve the health of these youngsters.

By following them over the course of their lives, the team also hopes to gain further understanding of how being born prematurely can affect health in later years.

Mrs Brown said: "We know that when babies are born prematurely or born with difficulties, with a hard start in life, that just those precious first days in hospital are so critical.

"But I think what's not often realised is there might be implications going forward in life.

"So what we want to be able to do is have a study which looks at what we know about the babies now, what health support they've needed to start them off in life and then, as they go through that journey, what we can learn with them both to support them but also to share that learning far wider."

She said the families of the children involved have made quite a commitment of their time to take part.

"Who knows what we'll find but I have no doubt we will learn a lot from it," Mrs Brown added.

Following the death of their first child in 2002, Mr and Mrs Brown set up a research fund to investigate the causes of premature births.

Mrs Brown was also one of the driving forces behind the establishment in 2004 of the Jennifer Brown Research Laboratory, based at the university.

Dr James Boardman, leading researcher at the laboratory, said: "Every year around 15 million babies are born prematurely.

"In recent years survival rates for these children have improved but they often live with serious consequences of early brain injury, which limits their potential.

"Following children from birth to adulthood will help us understand the most important determinants of risk and resilience for long-term outcome after premature birth, and by studying biological samples we hope to develop treatments to improve their lifelong health."

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