Promoting Oligodendrocyte Progenitor Cell Maturation as a Treatment for Preterm Brain Injury

Can stimulating the maturation of brain cells which produce myelin reverse brain injury in preterm babies?

Dr Justin Dean
University of Auckland

What is the problem and who does it affect?

Approximately 500 babies are born very prematurely each year in New Zealand. While the rate of survival of these babies has greatly increased due to advances in perinatal care, the fact is, they are at high risk of developing long-term problems, including neurological disorders.

For example, of the 500 babies born very prematurely, up to 15% will develop cerebral palsy, while as many as 50% may develop problems with learning and memory in later life. Clinical evidence suggests that reduced blood flow to the brain at the time of birth can cause damage to the white matter regions of the brain.

The white matter contains the fibres (axons) that connect different parts of the brain together. These fibres are coated with myelin, which allows signals to travel rapidly in the brain, much like the insulation on electrical wire. New studies suggest that the cells that make myelin, termed oligodendrocytes, do not mature correctly in preterm brain injury, meaning they fail to produce myelin.


How is the research begin carried out and what could be achieved?

Dr Justin Dean has previously undertaken work that strongly suggests that a chemical in the brain termed PH20 is released following injury, which causes oligodendrocytes to stop maturing and producing myelin.
In this study, using a preclinical animal model, Dr Dean and his team will use a unique PH20 inhibitor to determine whether blocking PH20 activity after white matter injury will promote oligodendrocyte development and myelination, and thus restore brain function.

This work will greatly improve the understanding of the mechanisms of preterm brain injury, and may provide new treatment strategies targeted towards promoting normal brain development and maturation after injury.