Investigating sudden infant deaths

A biological assay being developed at Lancaster University could help to explain why nearly 300 young infants die inexplicably each year in the UK.

Researchers in Lancaster’s biomedical and life sciences department believe the development of additional diagnostic techniques for the causes of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) will help doctors and parents cope with the unexplained deaths.

Project supervisor Jim A Morris believes that SIDS deaths are the result of babies succumbing to common bacteria that they have yet to build up immunities to.

He will test his hypothesis by identifying the presence of bacterial toxins within post-mortem body fluids using a range of proteomics. This technique separates proteins using an electric current. The proteins are heated up into a gas, which is monitored for its rate of movement.

Its rate of movement, according to Morris, can be used to calculate its molecular weight and this can be related to its amino-acid sequence.

The researchers will be then be able to classify the protein and determine the type of bacteria it may have been emitted from.

This information will help the team develop an enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay (ELISA) sensor device that could be used in the post-mortems of unexplained infant deaths.

Morris said he hoped the research could lead to prevention methods against SIDS or at least help exonerate parents from any legal ramifications following the unexplained death of their child.

’Before the courts almost every year, there is a poor mother who gets accused of murdering her infant after it suddenly collapses and dies,’ he said. ’If we could have a test to show that bacterial toxins can cause these collapses, that would be extremely useful.’