Jamie Morton is the NZ Herald's science reporter.

Kiwi innovation could help millions of kids

Tauranga girl Zahnee Campbell, now 10, is one of countless children around the world born with the debilitating effects of a strawberry birthmark. Photo: Supplied
Tauranga girl Zahnee Campbell, now 10, is one of countless children around the world born with the debilitating effects of a strawberry birthmark. Photo: Supplied

It's called Squish - and it could mean all the difference in treating millions of people around the world with strawberry birthmarks and other related disfiguring conditions.

Strawberry birthmarks, also known as haemangioma, are benign vascular tumours that grow rapidly for about a year after birth and affect around 10 per cent of children, in some cases threatening their bodily functions and even lives.

Traditionally, they've been treated with harsh medications like high-dose steroids or chemotherapy, or invasive procedures like surgery or laser therapy, and prove unpleasant, costly and lengthy.

Now, a new project, backed by a $930,000 Government grant, aims to revolutionise treatment with an effective topical agent based on cutting-edge drug delivery technology.

Instead of drugs that are typically taken orally and come with many side-effects, the technology effectively delivers the drugs in the form of deformable nanoparticles that find their way through the skin and apply bioactive agents directly to the affected site.

"The whole idea of delivering drugs through skin has been around for as long as there has been skin cream," said Dr Eng Tan, the Otago University chemistry researcher leading the work.

"But to get certain therapeutic agents through the skin is not as straight forward - some things just don't want to go through, basically because it's not compatible with the skin structure."

The new technology's cute name, Squish, reflects the fact that the nano-scale containers Eng and has team have designed are squishy, and are able to squeeze their way through gaps in the skin cells.

Dr Eng Tan. Photo: Supplied
Dr Eng Tan. Photo: Supplied

Tan said there currently wasn't anything available like Squish and, because of the risk of side effects, many people chose not to undergo treatment for their children if their condition wasn't serious.

He felt New Zealand was well placed to transform care, given that many of the world's foremost experts in the field could be found here.

The study was building off ground Tan had already broken through work with the Wellington-based Gillies McIndoe Research Institute, led by renowned plastic surgeon Professor Swee Tan.

"So when we saw it looked like it will work, we thought it'd be good to apply for more funding, so we could actually have my colleague Sean Mackay dedicated to doing this work 24/7," Eng Tan said.

Its support by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment's Endeavour Fund could ultimately help bring the technology to market, where the commercial potential ranged from tens to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Tan believed Squish could also prove useful for treating other conditions such as keloid scars, and perhaps ultimately melanomas.

Treatment breakthrough needed - sufferer's mum

Zahnee Campbell doesn't need to be reminded of the unpleasant effects that drug treatments for strawberry birthmarks can have.

The Tauranga girl, who turns 11 next week, has spent her life battling the disadvantages of being born with a facial vascular hemangioma tumour, which grew both on the surface and beneath her skin and required surgery to treat.

Zahnee Campbell, soon to turn 11, still battles the effects of the strawberry birthmark she was born with. Photo: File
Zahnee Campbell, soon to turn 11, still battles the effects of the strawberry birthmark she was born with. Photo: File

The condition had caused her eyesight to deteriorate, affected her co-ordination and left her with headaches and painful pressure on her shoulders from repeatedly having to balance her head on an angle.

As part of her treatment, she was prescribed drugs including high-dose steroids which put her in a "zombie-like" state, caused weight-gain and affected her development, mum Jade Riley said.

"It slowed down her milestones because she wasn't motivated to do anything."A miracle US operation has changed her life, but Zahnee's journey still isn't over; there are plans for further laser treatment on her eyelid and eyebrow.

She was still meanwhile struggling in class and becoming more conscious of her appearance.

"She actually wrote a speech for school on childrens' facial deformities - it was excellent."

Riley was delighted to hear of the new Otago University study and what it could mean for countless kids like Zahnee.

"I think it's great - and it's needed."

- NZ Herald

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