Cooling babies to reduce brain damage: a notable research career

  • 04 Apr 2018

Researchers know only too well the reality of how quickly time disappears. The researchers we fund are clear that their most significant challenge is the length of time it can take to produce life-changing research outcomes and the dearth of ongoing funding.

We want to tell you about Professor Alistair Gunn.

Alistair is one of those world-class researchers whose work has spanned over decades and your support has helped him to achieve far-reaching impact at a local, national and global level. The story begins back in the 1980s when a young Alistair, already a practicing physician with his MbCHb, embarked on his PhD in Paediatrics.

Back in those days, he was just one of many researchers and clinicians looking for some way to protect the brain after exposure to low oxygen at birth. Like many other physicians, from ancient civilization to recent memory, he noticed that babies exposed to low oxygen often became cold and wondered whether this might actually be a natural defense mechanism to protect the child, not just a result of the low oxygen levels.

“The predominant belief was that there was no benefit to lower temperatures, only the greater risk of death. We now know this is not quite true,” says Professor Gunn.

“With the benefit of hindsight, we now know, thanks to our work and many others since then, that the link was simply that sicker babies became colder. At the time though it was strongly believed that the ancient suggestion from antiquity that hypothermia could protect the brain was just a fable, and that letting babies get cold was dangerous and must be avoided at all costs.”

Prof Alistair Gunn


Undeterred by the majority, he knew there was still so much more to discover and forged ahead. With ongoing funding support from the Auckland Medical Research Foundation, he carried on with his critical research and published the first large animal study in 1997 – a study that therapeutic hypothermia, started after oxygen levels have dropped, was dramatically protective.

But imagine if the story ended there?

If continued funding hadn’t been available for Professor Gunn, he wouldn’t have gone on to undertake his groundbreaking randomised controlled trial of the Cool Cap in 2005. Hundreds of thousands of babies worldwide could still be dying or, if they survived, many would have lived with severe disabilities caused by lack of oxygen to the brain.

Baby being cooled with the Coolcap. Credit to Oakland Hospital, USA

“If I hadn’t had the sustained support from organisations like Auckland Medical Research Foundation, the cooling treatment, that has now become a global standard of care for babies with brain injury caused by low oxygen, simply would not have happened,” reflects Alistair. “It took years of intensive research to lead to this treatment and it has made a phenomenal difference to the mortality rate and health of babies all over the world.”

Photo credit: Oakland Hospital

Your support is critical for medical research success

And what does that look like in New Zealand?

The treatment that Professor Gunn’s research established is estimated to have reduced the number of children with severe disability due to low oxygen levels by 12%. To put it another way, affected babies are 40% more likely to live without disability.

In monetary terms, the Accident Compensation Commission projects that the cost of each severely affected child is NZ$33-$55 million over a lifetime – and the emotional, physical and financial toll on families coping with a severely disabled child is devastating and overwhelming.

In 2014 Professor Gunn was awarded the MacDiarmid Medal for outstanding scientific research for human benefit; the Gluckman Medal for his outstanding contributions to research, teaching and science and in 2015; in 2017, the Health Research Council’s prestigious Bevan Medal for excellence in transitional health research; and the NZ Association of Scientists awarded the 2017 Shorland Medal to the whole team for their sustained contirbution leading to benefit for society.

So how does he sum up some of his success?

“I am so fortunate to have received the life-saving funding that has enabled my research outcomes over my career. I feel so incredibly grateful to the generous people who have donated and continue to donate to the Foundation and I feel they truly understand that research takes our past and turns it into our present and our future.”

And who do we have to thank for success stories like Professor Gunn’s and the lives that have been so dramatically improved because of his research?

Supporters like you! Over the last 63 years, your support and donations has meant we have been able to fund over $65,000,000 of vital research.

To ensure we continue to fund the future Professor Gunn’s of this world, please consider making a donation before the end of the tax year, 31 March 2018. As all of our administration costs are endowed by a generous benefactor, you can be assured that 100% of your donation will go directly to research – and also claim back a 33% tax credit.
100% of your gift funds medical research

Thank you!

More News
Kiwi experts shining light on skin cancer
Pioneering Parkinson’s disease research under threat
Resources for writing funding applications
Medical research saves lives
Spring Newsletter 2018
VIDEO: Challenges and Opportunities for the Health of New Zealanders