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Born too soon

Investigator researching novel neuroprotective agents for preterm babies


By Kelly Foss

One of the most common pregnancy complications is giving birth too early.

In Canada, eight per cent of babies are born prematurely and, while survival rates have improved dramatically, the risk of severe disability from brain injury remains high.

Dr. Lindsay Cahill
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“When a mother is at risk of a premature birth, she is often given a magnesium sulphate treatment to protect the baby’s brain,” said Dr. Lindsay Cahill, who joined the Faculty of Science’s Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor in January.

“However, there is conflicting evidence about the efficacy of this treatment and how it works.”

Dr. Cahill was recently granted an award from the Banting Research Foundation to investigate how magnesium sulphate works using experimental mice that mimic different causes of premature birth.

She will study how chemicals in the brain change with treatment using magnetic resonance and look at whether the gender of the baby, or the cause of the early birth, should be considered when making decisions about treatment.

“We aren’t seeing significant decreases in the neurological impairments in preterm babies.” — Dr. Lindsay Cahill

Newfoundland and Labrador has one of the highest rates of pre-term birth in Canada, says Dr. Cahill, calling it a “major problem.”

“We aren’t seeing significant decreases in the neurological impairments in preterm babies. I’m hoping this is just the start of being able to look at novel neuroprotective agents that might do a better job.”

Seed funding

The Banting Discovery Award is a one-year grant of up to $25,000 for innovative health and biomedical research projects by outstanding new investigators at universities and research institutes in Canada who are within the first three years of their first academic appointment.

The intent is to provide seed funding so applicants are able to gather pilot data to enhance their competitiveness for other sources of funding.

Out of the 62 applications received from across the country in 2020, only seven were successful.

Mentor relationship

“It’s extremely helpful to have these pools of money available to start your research with because many of the funding agencies need a lot of preliminary data to show things are feasible and this funding allows you to collect that data,” said Dr. Cahill.

Also required as part of the award is a commitment from the applicant’s host department for a mentor who will assist in launching the applicant’s career by providing guidance with formulating research proposals, defining career goals and the timelines required to achieve them.

“Within the past six months I’ve applied for a number of different funding opportunities and that was one of the unique aspects of this award,” said Dr. Cahill.

Dr. Fran Kerton
The Department of Chemistry’s Dr. Fran Kerton is mentoring Dr. Lindsay Cahill.
Photo: Rich Blenkinsopp

“They pair you with a mentor in your department, which in my case was Dr. Fran Kerton. She’s been very helpful to me regardless, but it’s nice to establish that relationship in a more formal sense.”

New collaborations

Dr. Cahill holds a PhD in chemistry from McMaster University where she specialized in solid state NMR of materials. She spent 10 years as a post-doctoral fellow and research associate with the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto using MRI and ultrasound in animal models of human disease.

She hopes her experience in chemistry and biomedical research will allow her to form new collaborations between the Department of Chemistry and Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine.

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