Placenta research could help doctors treat premature babies with chronic lung conditions

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First published by ABC News 

Key points:

  • Over 50 per cent of babies born 15 weeks premature develop chronic lung condition
  • Up to 40 per cent of babies with chronic lung condition also have high blood pressure in lungs
  • Professor Arvind Sehgal’s study enables doctors to treat the condition

Almost a third of babies born extremely premature develop a chronic lung condition that can cause death and years of suffering.

But a study from Monash University and the Monash Children’s Hospital has found a way to detect the condition at birth, which can help doctors better manage and treat the illness.

Mothers of babies with this debilitating condition say it offers hope and could transform the quality of life for the sick baby and family.

Sonya Georgievski’s twin boys were born about 13 weeks premature because of complications.

“Your world sort of turns around and you’re like, ‘What?’ You just basically, go into a dark place and wonder what on Earth is going to happen,” she said.

And it got worse. The boys developed bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD — a chronic lung condition which affects about 55 per cent of babies born 15 weeks premature.

It causes breathing problems and can mean hospitalisations, vulnerability to infections and the need for home oxygen.

Ms Georgievski’s boys are now almost three years old but one, Xavier, was at risk of being hospitalised for simply catching a cold, while Oliver may develop asthma.

Pulmonary hypertension can leave babies at risk of death

Up to 40 per cent of babies with BPD also get what is known as PH — chronic pulmonary hypertension or high blood pressure in the lungs.

This complication greatly increases the risk of death and the need for intensive care treatment.

Michelle Matar’s daughter Shifra — born at just 23 weeks — had the complication and was close to dying.

“I think I was called up to four times to bid her farewell, but she was lucky to keep going,” she said.

“I can’t even explain how I used to feel. Days I would walk, I didn’t feel my legs.

“[It’s] just a feeling of helplessness when you’re a mother and can’t do anything more.”

Ms Martar said Shifra spent 13 months on oxygen support in hospital and two months with it at home.

‘We want to reduce risk of dying’

Professor Arvind Sehgal, a neonatal consultant at Monash Children’s Hospital, treated Shifra and has also led a study into the condition, which found ways to dramatically improve the baby’s chances and quality of life.

It involved testing the placentas of 56 pre-term babies.

“The study gives clues from the placenta,” he said.

“As soon as the baby is born, we get clues among this high-risk babies, which ones might develop this complication later on.”

Professor Sehgal said it had transformed doctors’ ability to treat the condition.

“So, [we] use information to change management strategy to reduce the risk, include different ways of supporting ventilation and there are some special medications that can be given and more effective early on,” he said.

“What we want to achieve is to reduce risk of dying and if we can reduce the length of stay in hospital. Then we improve quality of life for family and also save money in terms of health care resources.”

The study is being presented internationally next month.

Professor Arvind Sehgal

Pictured above: Professor Arvind Sehgal

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