Scientists will only make real breakthroughs in children's medicine if they include children in research programmes as well as adults, according to a leading paediatric expert.
Professor John Warner was speaking today at the opening of the Paediatric Research Unit, the UK's first unit solely devoted to paediatric clinical research. The unit is run by researchers from Imperial College London and St Mary's Hospital, and it is based next to the hospital's paediatric wards in Paddington.
Professor Warner, who is Chair in Paediatrics and Head of the Department of Paediatrics at Imperial College and consultant paediatrician at St Mary's Hospital, explained that researchers should be designing therapies specifically for children and their problems, rather than scaling down treatments that were created for adults. In many respects the makeup of children differs from that of adults: they have different metabolisms; their organs are not as mature as adults'; and diseases can behave differently in children's bodies.
"To create the best therapies for children we need to include them in our research," said Professor Warner. "A lot of paediatricians' work doesn't have much of a scientific evidence base and we prescribe drugs by extrapolating from what we know about adult bodies. We have a desperate need to understand precisely how children's bodies work so that we can custom-design therapies for them and their problems."
Researchers in the new unit will be investigating many areas including paediatric allergies and how these can be prevented; sleep disturbance and how this affects health and behaviour; new treatments for acute and chronic chest disorders such as bronchiolitis and asthma. They will also be looking at infectious diseases and immunisation; new treatments for neuromuscular diseases such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy; and prevention of the complications of sickle cell disease, to name but a few.
Professor Warner said that people should be assured that all research involving children would be carried out ethically and responsibly.
"We will of course be operating to the highest ethical standards and we will go to great lengths to ensure the safety of all the children in our care. If you think something might help children but you're not certain, it is unethical not to do the research and find out. You might be depriving a child of something that could do immense good," explained Professor Warner.
The new £650,000 unit includes two outpatient consulting rooms and two ensuite inpatient rooms, with enough space for a child and their parent to sleep in and with a monitoring room between. It also has a large waiting and play area, a lung function investigation room, a laboratory, offices for staff, a reception and a treatment room.
The first studies to be conducted by the unit will be a trial looking at preventing allergies using prebiotics in high risk infants; a unique treatment for Duchenne dystrophy, which has hitherto been incurable; a study looking at the use of a helium oxygen mixture in intensive care and to treat acute bronchiolitis; and studies into the impact of various allergic problems on sleep and daytime behaviour.
The unit is funded by St. Mary's Paddington Charitable Trust and the George John and Sheilah Livanos Charitable Trust. Jane Miles, Chief Executive of St Mary's Charity, explained: "When awarding grants our focus is on innovation and excellence and this new paediatric research unit is a wonderful example of these qualities. We believe such specialised research is essential in order to develop treatments and care that meet the very specific needs of some of the sickest children across the UK."
The researchers would welcome further donations in order to buy more of the specialised equipment needed for paediatric research.