Fifteen million preterm babies are born each year worldwide. Oftentimes, the lungs of infants born prematurely haven’t had time to fully develop.
Premature newborns often need artificial ventilation to supplement existing lung function. While necessary, this treatment can sometimes cause bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a chronic lung disease.
Because premature infants have suppressed immune systems, they also have an increased risk of infection. Lung infections are best treated with inhaled drugs, generally allowing for a lower treatment dose than other delivery options.
Therein lies the problem; inhalation systems that work well for children and adults are not adapted to efficiently treat premature babies and infants. Infants take between 40 to 60 breaths per minute, which is rapid compared to children and adults. Their tiny lungs also hold a smaller volume of air.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine (ITEM) are developing a system that shows promise for alleviating the current barriers of treating infants who require inhaled drug treatment.
The Gentle Approach
By combining a nasal prong with a miniature aerosol valve, researchers have found an effective treatment method that is gentler on the newborns’ small lungs.
The aerosol valve is applied directly to the premature infant’s nose, and is controlled by a sensor film. The film detects movement in the upper abdomen. Just as the baby is taking a breath, aerosol is released.
They call it a “breath-triggered inhalation system” because the treatment is delivered in a rapid, targeted manner. The aerosol release timing is controlled by an intelligent algorithm that allows for accuracy of about 20 milliseconds.
In tests, this treatment showed a 60 percent increase in efficiency when compared to conventional inhalation technology.
The inhalation system is currently not production-ready, but it should be fully developed within three to five years.
In addition to this initiative, the same research team is researching applications for administering dry-powder formulas via inhalation. This method would be used to treat preterm babies with infant respiratory distress syndrome, which can occur in underdeveloped lungs.