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Dr. Sherman and the Fierce Fight

Michael Sherman, MD, has dedicated his more than 30-year medical and research career championing the health issues facing premature infants.

Armed with a life-long interest in infectious disease control and research, he was already well into his medical education at the University of Michigan when his wife gave birth to a premature son. Thankfully, Sherman's son graduated with no health complications from the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, and today is a happy, healthy and successful adult with a family of his own. Still, Sherman's life experiences helped him sharpen and define the scope of his medical research and practice. "Being the father of a NICU graduate makes me have enormous empathy for parents in the NICU, and a deep devotion to their baby's care during the hospital stay," said Sherman. "Being the father of a preterm infant has heightened my involvement with babies at the bedside, and my own NICU experience as a parent has made me work very hard in my research to achieve better outcomes for these babies."

From their first minutes of life, premature babies often face a fierce fight for survival. These tiny newborns enter the world usually weighing anywhere from one to four pounds. Their lungs are often immature, they likely can't suck or swallow and they are incredibly vulnerable to infection. In fact, infections in their blood stream, their lungs or their intestines cause more brain injuries and death than anything else they face. Sherman's latest research positions him on the leading edge of neonatal medicine. He's currently working as the lead investigator on three different studies of medical techniques that would keep these tiny babies from getting those life-threatening infections.

 "Likely my most significant research of those three studies has to do with whether we can stop preemies from getting infections by feeding them a recombinant, or man-made, whey-protein that is identical to an important protein babies usually get from their mothers' breast milk," said Sherman. Sherman's current study, backed by the National Institutes of Health, is anchored in some of his previous research. He completed several studies in which he looked at that breast milk protein, called lactoferrin. He found that it contained crucial antimicrobial properties that could significantly reduce premature infant infection rates if given to these infants from their first moments of life. "The biggest obstacle to that therapy is a mother's breast milk is often not available to a preterm infant in their first hours of life, for a whole host of reasons," said Sherman. "So we hypothesized that if we could come up with a man-made version of lactoferrin and give that to these preterm infants immediately, that it would have the same protective effect." Sherman completed a clinical trial based at MU Children's Hospital with this recombinant lactoferrin and published his results in the Journal of American Medical Association in October, 2009. His research showed that, of the premature babies who received the protein, none got a blood stream infection and only four had to fight an intestinal infection.

Sherman says his goal as a neonatologist and medical researcher is not only to save babies lives, but to ensure these children have the best, most positive outcomes and the the highest possible quality of life. In short, he doesn't just want them to make it home from the NICU. He wants them to leave the NICU with no lasting health issues whatsoever. "I get to see my patients graduate from the NICU and then I get high school and college graduation announcements from them. We're supposed to make their whole lives better. Nowhere is that more apparent than in neonatology. Our work can give them their whole lives, seventy or eighty years. It's incredibly fulfilling."

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