Giving newborns with underdeveloped lungs a fighting chance

Severe complications associated with small lungs (lung hypoplasia) in newborns could soon be reduced with the findings from a preclinical model.

Babies with small and underdeveloped lungs have a condition called lung hypoplasia (LH) which makes it difficult for them to breathe at birth. As a result, they need significant assistance to transition from fetal to newborn life. Sadly, these newborns are susceptible to severe complications that can affect their lungs, heart and brain.

Dr Erin McGillick and PhD student Indya Davies discussing lung hypoplasia
Dr Erin McGillick and PhD student Indya Davies

Scientists at Hudson Institute of Medical Research hope that the findings from a preclinical model that mimics the symptoms of LH will help improve the understanding of the processes involved in transitioning to newborn life for infants with LH, and result in better treatment plans at birth.

Published in The Journal of Applied Physiology, the study by Dr Erin McGillick and PhD student Indya Davies and colleagues (Hudson Institute and Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Monash University, Melbourne Royal Women’s Hospital and Erasmus Medical Centre Rotterdam) provides physiological evidence for the detrimental effects of LH in a preclinical model.

The team observed reduced air into and blood flow through the lungs during the transition which are the two key components necessary for fetuses to successfully transition to newborn life.

Dr McGillick says the characterisation of this LH preclinical model is an important step towards finding ways to help babies with underdeveloped lungs.

Lung hypoplasia can vary in severity and affects around 1 in 1000 births

Apart from their lungs, babies with LH often develop normally during pregnancy as their lungs are not required to perform gas exchange, which is provided by the placenta. However, after birth the newborn becomes solely reliant on their lungs to perform gas exchange. In newborns with LH, their small and underdeveloped lungs are unable to sufficiently perform the role of gas exchange.

“Current clinical management of newborns with LH is largely based on expert opinion rather than scientific evidence. Our work provides a better understanding of how infants transition from fetal to newborn life when they have small and under-developed lungs,” says Dr McGillick.

“These findings provide physiological mechanisms causing the symptoms observed clinically in babies with LH. Now we have an opportunity to identify better ways to assist babies with LH to make the transition to newborn life.”

Hudson Institute, Monash University, The Royal Women’s Hospital, Erasmus Medical Centre Rotterdam.

National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC)

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