New Treatment Could Prevent Lung Disease in Preemies

Thousands of babies are born prematurely in the United States each year, and perhaps their greatest risk of long-term complications is lung disease. But researchers have now found that delivering nitric oxide to the lungs of these tiny babies can help.

In a national five-year study of 600 babies, funded by the National Institutes of Health, researchers found that the rate of survival without chronic lung disease was as much as 20 percent higher in infants treated with nitric oxide than the rate in untreated infants. Among treated infants who did develop lung disease, it was less severe. The treated infants also had shorter hospital stays and less need for mechanical intervention or oxygen therapy.

Nitric oxide is produced naturally in the body, and is known to benefit full-term babies suffering from pulmonary hypertension. But the mechanism by which it affects the lungs isn't known, and its impact on premature infants had previously been untested.

Approximately 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. infants have chronic lung disease resulting from their premature births.

"Chronic lung disease is the most important long-term pulmonary complication for premature infants, so these results are very encouraging." states study leader Roberta A. Ballard, M.D., a neonatologist at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The study, reported in a recent issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, found no adverse effects from nitric oxide treatment.

The research team plans to make definitive recommendations for the use of nitric oxide in premature infants once it has analyzed follow-up studies of the children's status at age 2. Those studies should be completed by 2007.

- Christina Elston