World first study may hold key to preventing deadly lung disease in premature babies

Every year in Australia and New Zealand  more than 1000 premature babies (born before 28 weeks) develop chronic lung disease – making them more at risk of a longer hospital stay, of returning home requiring oxygen, re-hospitalization and dying.

These risks are more than doubled if the baby has fetal growth restriction (FGR), ie are born smaller even accounting for their premature birth. Yet, until now, it has not been known why the lungs in FGR infants are not well developed and FGR has such a profound effect on premature babies developing the potentially deadly lung disease.

Now a world first study led by Professor Arvind Sehgal, from the Department of Pediatrics at Monash University, used high frequency ultrasound to show that growth restricted infants have poorly developed blood vessels in their lungs—compared to well grown but premature infants.

“These are blood vessels that have not developed well in these young infants, they are thick and stiff,” Professor Sehgal said.

“Normal vessel development is paramount for subsequent normal lung development.”

The study, published last week in the Journal of Physiology, looked at 40 preterm babies born between 28 and 32 weeks gestation. Twenty of these babies also had a birth-weight in the 10th lowest percentile. The researchers performed a single high resolution echocardiogram to measure lung vessel thickness and stiffness.

According to Professor Sehgal, the study “opens up avenues for medications which could be given to pregnant mothers (before birth) as well as to newborn babies after birth to address this deadly disease.”

“Given hundreds of babies across the region are affected by chronic lung disease every year; the potential to improve clinical outlook in these critically ill babies is immense,” he said.