Fighting for babies

MUSC Nurse Erin Barton gives Rokim Martin her baby, Elisha Lee Martin, who was born prematurely last week.

Two Charleston medical researchers received more than $400,000 from the March of Dimes South Carolina Chapter to study treatments for babies born prematurely or with birth defects.

Dr. Xuejun Wen and Dr. Lakshmi Katikaneni, both of the Medical University of South Carolina, also are seeking new ways to prevent those conditions.

Wen, an assistant professor of cell biology and anatomy, is developing a new generation of cochlear implants, electronic devices surgically placed in the inner ear that stimulate hearing in the deaf.

Children with severe hearing loss continue to lose nerve cells in the inner ear, a problem existing treatments have not addressed. Wen's cochlear implants are designed to prevent that issue because they contain living cells that continuously deliver nerve-sustaining substances to the inner ear.

Hearing impairment, which affects about 12,000 babies born in the U.S. annually, puts children at risk for delayed language development.

Katikaneni, a professor in MUSC's neonatology department, is studying how medical imaging can be used to determine the severity of brain injuries in babies born to mothers with a specific type of infection.

Chorioamnionitis, a uterine infection seen in up to 10 percent of pregnant women, is a common cause of premature labor that can cause inflammation in the baby's brain. The inflammation can result in brain damage, cerebral palsy and learning problems.

The sooner doctors detect brain injury in babies, the faster they can treat them, possibly preventing further damage. Current techniques are inadequate, Katikaneni said.