Liggins Institute

LiFePATH: Experimental research

We are investigating possible interventions during fetal and neonatal life that could improve the long term health of at-risk babies and the survival of young livestock.


Babies who are born small (either through poor fetal growth or because they are born preterm) have an increased risk of chronic adult diseases such as coronary heart disease, obesity, hypertension and diabetes. We are investigating possible interventions (before or after birth) that could alter these risks.

Our multidisciplinary team conducts experimental work in the Liggins Institute in Auckland and at the Liggins Institute Farm. We are currently undertaking:

  • studies in large animals to determine the effects of different rates of growth and nutrition before birth and in the newborn period on later adult health
  • studies in preterm newborn animals and those small for gestational age to explore the best treatments for preterm and small babies
  • molecular studies investigating the underlying mechanisms driving these long-term outcomes
  • wherever possible we apply what we learn about perinatal biology not just to the care of human babies but to other areas including health and welfare of farm animals.

The Liggins Institute Farm is a cost-effective, world-class facility with state of the art research equipment. We welcome enquiries from international researchers interested in utilising these facilities or planning to visit on sabbatical.

Contact the team at


Research projects

Fetal growth and its long-term consequences

Treating Intrauterine Growth Restriction (IUGR) before birth

We were the first to show that, in fetal sheep, IUGR could be reversed by growth factor supplements administered into the amniotic fluid. Our ongoing studies are investigating the molecular mechanisms underlying these effects and the long term consequences such as size at birth, postnatal growth and body composition and indicators of later disease risk. The studies suggest the exciting possibility of a future evidence based treatment for one of the leading causes of death and illness in newborn babies.

Improving postnatal growth

There is conflicting evidence of the long-term benefit of encouraging accelerated growth in low birthweight and preterm infants. We are investigating how inducing rapid neonatal growth in lambs born IUGR or preterm affects later growth, body composition, appetite, physical activity, cognitive behaviour and indicators of disease risk in later life, such as glucose tolerance and sympathetic nervous system innervation of the heart.

We will use the results of our study as the basis of future clinical trials to attain optimal neonatal growth for later health.

We are also studying the relationships between nutritional intake and growth and neurodevelopmental outcome in extremely low birthweight babies.

In commercially funded agricultural work we are working with clients to develop supplements that improve the demanding transition from monogastric to ruminant digestive function and better maintain continued health and weight gain.

Twins – not simply double trouble?

Twins (and higher order multiples) are born smaller and earlier than singletons. This does not appear to be due simply to constraints of placental nutrient supply and intrauterine space in late gestation. Further, recent evidence suggests that twins may also be at increased risk of common adult diseases such as diabetes. We are conducting research in sheep, a monotocous species selected to bear twins, which demonstrates that size at birth and timing of birth are determined in early gestation. We are currently investigating the long-term physiological consequences of being conceived as a twin and the developmental pathways that are altered following twin conception.

Our work on multiple pregnancies is also particularly relevant to the New Zealand sheep industry. In commercially funded projects we are collaborating with clients to develop specific and practical supplements that will improve the metabolic health of triplet-bearing ewes in late pregnancy and decrease losses of both ewes and lambs. In related work we are also studying whether the human glucose oral gel application can be adapted and applied to New Zealand sheep farming operations to increase lamb survival.

Effects of a constrained intrauterine environment

In this experimental project we are investigating how maternal constraint (in the form of maternal age or maternal size) subsequently affects glucose metabolism in the offspring. This project also investigates how the daughters of either young or old mothers respond to pregnancy, and how the next generation copes with nutritional challenges.


Long-term physiological consequences of preterm birth

The long-term consequences of preterm birth on neurodevelopment are well known. However, as neonatal paediatrics is a relatively young specialty, the long-term metabolic and endocrine effects of preterm birth are much less well known. Emerging data suggest that even late preterm birth, which has excellent short-term outcomes, may be associated with increased risks of later disease.

We are investigating the effects of late preterm birth in sheep on development of the cardiovascular system, particularly autonomic control of cardiac function, cardiac growth and structure, glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity, body composition and function of the stress axis.



Safe weight management during obese pregnancy

We are currently developing a sheep-based experimental paradigm to study what degree of weight-gain control is safe during pregnancy. This is a very controversial area as the majority of weight gain during pregnancy is due to the baby and placenta but also fluid accumulation in the mother.

Severe weight restriction of already obese mothers during pregnancy could adversely impact the development of the baby in utero and perhaps during later life course. We are investigating what effect different degrees of weight gain control during obese pregnancy have on maternal, placental and fetal physiology.


Projects available for new research students

We have openings for postgraduate students who wish to pursue honours, masters and doctoral level research. We welcome inquiries from potential students from a variety of backgrounds and career stages.

For general enquiries please email Ellen Campbell: