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How a simple treatment is helping to give premature bubs a better start
Coconut oil has been used on premature babies at King Edward Memorial Hospital since 2017 to help fight off deadly infections. Now, Telethon Kids Institute researchers are hoping to prove it is effective for a range of other conditions – from eczema to burn injuries.
It’s a beautifully simple concept: using high-quality coconut oil on the skin of extremely premature babies to stop bacteria from entering their bodies through their fragile skin. A pilot study at King Edward Memorial Hospital showed such excellent results that coconut oil was swiftly adopted as a standard treatment offered to all babies being cared for in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Clinical Professor Tobias Strunk – who is head of the Neonatal Infection and Immunity team the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases, based at Telethon Kids Institute, and a consultant neonatologist at King Edward Memorial Hospital – has now rolled out a large-scale clinical trial of the intervention, known as COSI-2, to NICUs across Australia and New Zealand.
Meanwhile, the incredible results from the pilot have sparked a question in the minds of the research team: what else could coconut oil be used for? “It’s not only a really good emollient that hydrates the skin well, but it also has anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory actions, particularly relating to bacteria that are commonly found on the skin,” Professor Strunk said.
Dr Strunk’s enthusiasm for coconut oil soon sparked a conversation with renowned burns surgeon and Telethon Kids Institute Honorary Fellow, Professor Fiona Wood, leading to the development of a trial using coconut oil on the skin of children with burn injuries who need a skin graft. The idea is to help protect both the burn site and the graft site from infection.
Preliminary lab research has shown that coconut oil is active against bacteria that colonises the skin and causes some of these problems in burns, and that it’s helpful with skin healing.
Professor Tobias Strunk
Another surprising potential use for coconut oil is to ease the suffering of children undergoing chemotherapy. “A common side effect from chemo is mouth ulcers that are painful and bacteria may gain access to and cause serious infections,” Dr Strunk said. “So we’re doing a small pilot study where the child uses a coconut oil mouthwash several times a day.” Not surprisingly, there are also high hopes that coconut oil could be used to treat skin conditions like eczema.
Dr Strunk is collaborating with colleagues from the Child and Adolescent Health Service and in the Telethon Kids Institute’s Immunology and Allergy team to conduct a trial to see if using this safe, natural oil on top of standard steroid-based treatments leads to better results. “You can imagine, having a child with a chronic condition, it’s always nice to have something that’s safe and simple which also intuitively makes sense,” he said. “It’s very important for us to do the hard underlying scientific work and put it on a solid footing.”
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Dr Strunk and the Neonatal and Infection and Immunity team are working to develop a coconut oil product that meets the stringent criteria of the Therapeutic Goods Administration.
The pilot study (COSI-1) was funded by the Women’s and Infants’ Research Foundation, while the COSI-2 trial is being supported by the Thrasher Research Fund. Laboratory work is supported by the Wesfarmers Centre of Vaccines and Infectious Diseases.