A new technique gives unprecedented insight into the dramatic changes occurring in a baby’s first week of life.

Using less than a quarter of a teaspoon of blood, an international research team based at Australia’s Telethon Kids Institute was able to chart thousands of processes kicked off at the time of birth.

They spotted almost 2,000 genes being turned on and off, the making of proteins, and the establishment of metabolic pathways.

The study seeks to create a new baseline for health and disease in early life that can help measure responses to key medical interventions such as vaccines, as well as the impact of factors such as diet, disease and maternal health.

“In the past we haven’t had the tools to look in depth at the immune response in very early life, because the necessary testing required large volumes of blood which can’t be taken when babies are that small,” said research leader Professor Peter Richmond.

“What previous work has been done used blood taken from the baby’s umbilical cord after birth, because it was easier to obtain the volume needed – however what we’ve found is that when you measure what’s happening in the baby itself rather than the cord blood, it’s quite different.”

The researchers instead took a systems biology approach, developing tests that could be carried out on less than a quarter of a teaspoon of newborn blood.

Systems biology uses computer and mathematical models to understand complex biological systems.

“As a result we’ve gone from the 4 to 5 tablespoons of blood that might be needed for standard testing, to less than 1ml,” Professor Richmond said.

“By being very careful in the way we collect and process these specimens, we’ve been able to obtain and analyse a huge amount of data. We’re using the latest in technology, but miniaturising it so it can be used in newborn babies.”

Using these new tests, the researchers were able to identify a series of dramatic changes that added up to a remarkably stable and purposeful, rather than random, developmental trajectory over the first week of life.

This included more than 1860 genes being turned on and off, and more than 350 different metabolic pathways and chemical changes.

“It’s much more complex than you would have thought,” Professor Richmond said.

“It’s quite clear that even in these first few days babies are setting down a roadmap for immune development, the colonisation of their microbiome, and countless other processes which will help determine the direction they’re going in for the rest of their life.”

He said although the researchers intended to use the breakthrough to optimise the design of vaccines so babies could be protected more quickly and with longer lasting immunity, the information obtained from the tiny samples of blood would help deepen the understanding of newborn health more broadly.

“Being born is one of the most dangerous things that ever happen, and it’s a time when babies, particularly in developing countries, can be highly susceptible to infections – which is why we’re so interested in understanding the baby’s immune response and the impact of vaccines at this critical time,” Professor Richmond said.

“However, the enormous amount of information we’ve been able to obtain through this approach has application to many other fields focused on the start of life and what we can do to improve it.

“The significance of this big data approach is that we will find things we would have never thought of that might be important at that very early stage.

“It’s given us a window into what’s going on at a molecular level, in a way we haven’t been able to do before. It’ll allow us to look at what we can do, as public health doctors and parents, to improve a baby’s outlook according to what happens in these very first few days of life – and that will apply to a whole range of conditions, not just infectious diseases.

“It’s certainly very exciting to see where this new technology can take us.”

The study is accessible here.