Meet the Professor of Neonatology who has halved rates of Kiwi babies in ICU for low blood sugar

Jessica Satherley
Meet the Professor of Neonatology who has halved rates of Kiwi babies in ICU for low blood sugar
The paediatrician’s acclaimed research has spanned decades

Over her career, Professor Jane Harding has shown that the rate of New Zealand’s neonatal intensive care admissions for babies with low blood sugar could be halved by using dextrose gel. 

The paediatrician and Professor of Neonatology’s acclaimed research has spanned decades and led to numerous awards, most recently as the Supreme Winner of the Women of Influence Awards. 

Professor Harding is best known for her work with the Sugar Babies Study, in which newborn babies with low blood sugar had dextrose gel rubbed into the inside of their cheek to reverse hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar).  

And she is now researching whether sugar gel could also prevent low blood sugar from developing in the first place. 

“We’ve just looked at whether prevention would work but we don’t know the answer to that yet; we’ll know that within the next few months,” Professor Harding says. 

Since becoming a paediatrician and Professor of Neonatology - the medical specialty that centres on new-born and premature infants - Professor Harding has performed ground-breaking research in the field. 

“The research is about interventions that might improve outcomes for mothers and babies around the time of birth.  

“The question is also, ‘does that improve things for them in the long term?’ So, a lot of our research is focused on what happens in the months or years after that intervention - does it improve things? 

“Those sorts of studies mean we assess mothers and children for years after the birth. With the older studies we’ve done, the former babies are now 30-year-olds,” she says. 

The babies that were in the original Sugar Babies Study are now nine and 10 years old. 

“We want to be sure that that treatment is safe and there are no long-term problems. 

“Also, we want to see how their growth and development is and whether the treatment improves outcomes at school age.” 

Around one in three babies are born at risk of low blood sugar. 

Babies born at risk include those born pre-term, babies born to mothers with diabetes, or babies that are particularly large or small.  

“Half of that group will develop low blood glucose in the developed world,” Professor Harding says.   

Westpac NZ Chief Executive David McLean says Professor Harding’s achievements exemplify the bold and groundbreaking work of Kiwi women across all walks of life. 

“Her tireless research work and her lobbying for effective treatments for babies has touched the lives of thousands of families across many years,” McLean says. 

Professor Harding says she was surprised when she won two Women of Influence awards this year - for Innovation, Science & Health as well as the Supreme Award. 

“I was overwhelmed by the thought that I might have some influence over people.  

“But in reality, what you do on a day-to-day basis and leading groups of people does have an influence over how people think about a topic and careers and how they think about opportunities.  

“And I’d like to think this award allows, particularly some young women, to think about opportunities in science and research in medicine and the potential to actually make a difference in the world,” she says. 

“I think traditionally, the hard sciences in particular have been seen as male-dominated areas, but that’s changing, and medicine is changing and it’s now a majority of women who are going into medicine. 

"But the process of thinking about science in the future starts very early so we need to make sure that from very early school age girls are given the same opportunity as boys to explore careers of all sorts, including in the sciences. 

“I think there’s a general change across the whole of society in New Zealand but it’s very striking in the sciences in both academia and medicine that a larger proportion of women are coming into those fields and are progressing in those fields to senior leaders.  

“That's a steady process, we’ve made huge progress,” Professor Harding says. 

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