premature newborn's life hangs in the
balance. The baby, born weeks before its tiny body is capable of functioning outside of the womb, is whisked away from the frightened new parents by a team of doctors and nurses. His tiny lungs are too immature for him to breathe on his own and he is hooked up to a respirator in an effort to help him sustain his fragile life.
This scenario occurs all too often in delivery rooms across the nation, and doctors and scientists are still trying to unravel the mysteries of why some babies are born too soon. While years of research have yielded few answers to the causes of premature births, treatments and medical interventions for complications of prematurity have progressed over the past decade, helping some of the sickest babies survive - and thrive.
Here at Winthrop, after more than 14 years of research, physicians have developed a new use for
a popular antioxidant that significantly impacts the treatment and outcome of premature babies with fragile, undeveloped lungs -- a major breakthrough in ongoing studies of the effects of this growing problem on the health of newborns.
According to the study recently published in Pediatrics, a publication of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the antioxidant, called superoxide
dismutase, has been shown to help prevent damage in premature lungs and improve the long-term
pulmonary health of babies born too early.
The research examined whether treatment with the antioxidant reduced the incidence of serious, chronic lung disease that occurs in premature infants who need intensive oxygen therapy to survive Respiratory Distress Syndrome (RDS). Results demonstrated that superoxide dismutase is a safe and effective therapy that improves pulmonary outcome in high-risk infants one year after treatment.
The study also demonstrated that intervention with superoxide dismutase could prevent serious respiratory illness such as asthma and respiratory infections in children as they grow older. According to the National Institutes for Health (NIH), approximately 10,000 infants develop these types of chronic respiratory difficulties each year.
The most significant results of this new treatment can be seen by one to two years of age. There was approximately a 60 percent decrease in Emergency Room visits and hospital readmissions in the smallest and most critically ill infants. And, there was an almost 50 percent reduction in severe wheezing and respiratory
illnesses one year after treatment with the antioxidant compared to babies who did not receive the treatment.
Jonathan Davis, MD, Director of Neonatology at Winthrop and lead investigator in the study stated, "Developing medications for premature babies has always been very difficult, and until now, there have been few successful long-term treatments for underdeveloped lungs in newborns. This new antioxidant treatment will markedly improve the immediate and future health of babies."
The lungs are one of the last major organs to mature in a developing fetus and when babies are born too
soon (less than 37 weeks gestational age), their underdeveloped lungs are often not ready to breathe on their own. Consequently, the lungs become damaged from the oxygen in the air as well as from respirators and other treatments.
The antioxidant is delivered directly into an infant's lungs every 48 hours for up to one month. In a number of laboratory and human studies, it has been shown that this new treatment, combined with the administration of surfactant, a medication that helps the air sacs in the lungs inflate and deflate, has vastly improved the strength and long-term health of the lungs of premature infants.
"The biggest effect of this treatment was seen in the smallest, sickest babies," added Dr. Davis, who, along with colleague Warren Rosenfeld, MD, Chairman of the Department of Pediatrics at Winthrop, has been
investigating this treatment since 1987.
Dr. Davis and Dr. Rosenfeld began their research in Winthrop's Cardiopulmonary Research Institute and since then developed the antioxidant treatment thanks in part to major grants from the American Lung Association, the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation and the NIH. The antioxidant therapy will undergo further testing before receiving FDA approval.
In addition to the groundbreaking research taking place on behalf of premature babies, Winthrop was
designated a Regional Perinatal Center in 2002, one of only 18 such centers in New York State, because of the Hospital's expertise and resources to care for the region's sickest babies.
For more information, call Winthrop's Institute for Family Care at 1-866-WINTHROP.