Guardian article: Finding new ways to give mothers and newborns a healthier start

Scientist Lori Gavrin has first-hand experience of why we need to find new ways to help protect mothers and their newborn babies

Working as a scientist in maternal and neonatal health is personal. Six years ago, I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia while expecting twins. This is a condition that can develop in pregnant women, potentially causing dangerously high blood pressure. Although I was in a top hospital in the US, it was still very serious and the only option was to deliver my babies nine weeks early.

I’m very fortunate, and my twins are both healthy little girls now, but in the developing world, babies born that early would not have had a fighting chance. Without access to life saving technologies, such pre-term newborns cannot always survive. It’s important to me to help give mothers and babies a better chance – wherever they are in the world.

In an effort to improve the health of pregnant women and their newborn babies, GSK set up a research and development unit focused on maternal and neonatal health almost two years ago. Every day, 800 women die in pregnancy or childbirth – the vast majority of them in developing countries. When a mother dies, their child is also put at risk, as children are more likely to survive if they have their mother. Our group is working to help reduce maternal and neonatal mortality caused by complications in pregnancy and childbirth; our research focuses on areas where there are currently gaps in both treatment and prevention, such as pre-eclampsia and pre-term labour. We are also searching for new interventions to help protect newborns.

I got the chance to work in the maternal and neonatal health unit through GSK’s Esprit programme, which gives experienced scientists the opportunity to move outside of their comfort zone and spend time in different roles within the company. Initially I trained as a medicinal chemist. I have always believed that everything comes down to chemistry – after all, it’s molecules that make us what we are. The opportunity to use chemistry to design and develop drugs that could have a big impact on people’s health really resonated with me. For more than a decade, I researched cystic fibrosis and other rare diseases at another healthcare company. Although near and dear to my heart, this is the first time that I’ve had the opportunity to work in the maternal and neonatal health space.

Among the projects I’m working on is research into pre-eclampsia. The World Health Organization recommends that women in communities identified as having high levels of calcium deficiency should take supplements to raise their calcium levels since this reduces the risk of pre-eclampsia. We’re undertaking a clinical research project to look at changes in protein levels in pregnant women when taking calcium. A better understanding of how calcium works may lead us to new interventions to treat pre-eclampsia. It’s early days, but I know first hand how vital it is that we try to find ways to help prevent this condition.

One of the great things about working in this group is the chance to collaborate with non-governmental organisations (NGOs). As part of GSK’s five-year partnership with Save the Children, we’re developing an antiseptic gel that could help prevent umbilical cord infections in babies born in the least developed countries. Sepsis, often caused by umbilical cord infections, is one of the main causes of death in newborns in the developing world - it claims around 600,000 lives every year. Chlorhexidine is an antiseptic that has been shown to prevent infection when applied to the umbilical cord stump. The physician who heads our unit - Pauline Williams – recognised that chlorhexidine is the main ingredient in a mouthwash made by GSK. So, she initiated a programme to reformulate chlorhexidine into a gel that – if assessed and approved by regulators – could be used in poorer countries to apply to freshly cut umbilical cords. Working with Save the Children gave us an amazing opportunity to utilise their understanding of the on-the-ground situation to help progress the project.

The team has succeeded in putting the chlorhexidine gel into single-use sachets – a bit like ketchup packets. My focus is on how to get the gel – if approved – into the field as quickly as we can and to make sure people understand how to properly use it. This means that I work very closely with Save the Children. My day-to-day work draws on their skills, knowledge and contacts, as well as GSK’s. Not only is this an example of how consumer products can be put to different uses, but also of how a novel partnership between two different organisations can help bring an idea to life.

It has been a process of trial and error to see how we can best work together – we bring two different perspectives, cultures and ways of working. The partnership really is one of a kind and joining these diverse perspectives could bring so much benefit to mothers, newborns and children. Hopefully this collaboration will serve as a blueprint, paving the way for other healthcare companies and NGOs to work together in novel ways.

Lori Gavrin is a scientific director in the maternal and neonatal health research & development unit at GSK.

Lori is now working in collaboration strategy with our Discovery Partnerships with Academia team.

She was interviewed for this article.

This feature first appeared on The Guardian as part of a series exploring global health challenges.