Doctors can rescue critically ill premature babies from almost certain death by filling their feeble, underdeveloped lungs with oxygen-rich liquid for a few days to restore their breathing.
The babies breathe through the liquid, which takes the place of air until it gradually evaporates.
A pilot study on 13 babies was remarkably successful: Seven survived without serious lung damage, mental retardation or any of the other ill effects common in extremely small infants.
“Some of the babies were almost dying as we put the liquid in,” said Dr. Corinne Lowe Leach of Children’s Hospital of Buffalo, N.Y. “For others, we were at the limit of our current technology and concerned they might not survive.”
The same experimental technique is being tested on children and adults with a variety of other life-threatening lung illnesses and injuries, including infections, near-drowning and smoke inhalation. In all, about 700 patients in hospitals across the United States are being enrolled in studies of the liquid, known as perflubron or LiquiVent.
Its developers, Alliance Pharmaceutical Corp. of San Diego and Hoechst-Roussel Pharmaceuticals Inc. of Frankfurt, Germany, are financing the studies as part of their effort to win Food and Drug Administration approval.
“This is a very exciting new frontier in medicine that we have explored. We have taken critical care management of patients with lung disease to a new level,” said Leach, who directed the first human study.
Leach and four co-authors of the study are consultants to Alliance. The work was published in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.
In infant respiratory distress syndrome - also known as hyaline membrane disease - the lungs lack enough surfactant, a chemical that keeps the air sacs open so oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.