Major discovery could prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Researchers at The Children's Hospital at Westmead. have identified the first biochemical marker that could help detect babies more at risk of crib death.

 A newborn baby at the Sha'arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2018.  (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
A newborn baby at the Sha'arei Tzedek Hospital in Jerusalem, on October 29, 2018.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) may soon be a thing of the past thanks to a world-first breakthrough at The Children's Hospital at Westmead.

What is SIDS? 

SIDS is the sudden and unexplained death of a baby younger than one-year-old. SIDS is sometimes called crib death. This is because the death may happen when the baby is sleeping in a crib.

SIDS is one of the leading causes of death in babies from ages 1 month to 1 year. It happens most often between 2 and 4 months old. SIDS and other types of sleep-related infant deaths have similar risk factors.

How was the study conducted? 

Researchers have identified Butyrylcholinesterase (BChE) as the first biochemical marker that could help detect babies more at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) while they are alive.

The study, published in The Lancet's eBioMedicine journal on Saturday analyses BChE activity in 722 Dried Blood Spots (DBS) taken at birth as part of the Newborn Screening Program, using only parent-approved samples for the research. 

 A newborn baby lying on her mother moments after birth in a delivery room at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem on June 18, 2011.   (credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90) A newborn baby lying on her mother moments after birth in a delivery room at the Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem on June 18, 2011. (credit: KOBI GIDEON/FLASH90)

Samples were taken from infants that have dies from both SIDS and other causes and BChE was measured in comparison to 10 surviving infants with the same date of birth and gender

The study found that BChE levels were significantly lower in babies who subsequently died of SIDS compared to living controls and other infant deaths. 

BChE plays a major role in the brain’s arousal pathway and researchers believe its deficiency likely indicates an arousal deficit, which reduces an infant’s ability to wake or respond to the external environment, causing vulnerability to SIDS.

"Game-changing” findings 

“This has long been thought to be the case, but up to now, we didn’t know what was causing the lack of arousal. Now that we know that BChE is involved we can begin to change the outcome for these babies and make SIDS a thing of the past,” Dr. Harrington said, "the findings are game-changing," she added.

The next step for researchers is to begin looking at introducing the BChE biomarker into newborn screening and developing specific interventions to address the enzyme deficiency. It is expected this will take around five years to complete.

The study was led by Dr. Carmel Harrington, Honorary Research Fellow at CHW, who lost her own child to SIDS 29 years ago.