A medical breakthrough that has allowed countless premature babies to survive

In 1950, during suspicion that the Soviet Union might unleash chemical warfare, the United States Army assigned a young doctor, John Clements, to research the effect of nerve gases on human lungs.  As he began his research, Clements was troubled by a discrepancy in the ways surface area of lungs was measured.  Three years later, Clements correctly posited that the surface area of lungs – which determines how much oxygen can enter the bloodstream – relied on “a substance in the lung that made the alveoli easier to inflate and keep inflated,” according to NPR.

Clements’ theory was right.  The key to lungs being able to expand is surfactant, a substance made of fats and proteins which allows the alveoli to expand.  Prior to this discovery, doctors did not know why so many babies born prematurely would struggle to breathe and ultimately die.  They simply watched helplessly, unable to treat the problem.

The phenomenon was called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), and physicians had no resources that prevented death from RDS in preemies.  Once the cause of RDS was isolated – an absence of surfactant – synthetic surfactants were developed and are now administered to very premature children, greatly increasing their chances of survival.  In fact, today, less than 5% of premature babies die of RDS.  Pinpointing the problem and developing a treatment are the direct result of Dr. John Clements’ initial pioneering research on the physiology of lungs.  NPR reports:

At 92, he still heads in every day and is proud of what his work has meant for treating premature infants with respiratory distress syndrome.

"When we began this work back in the 1950s, the mortality from RDS was above 90 percent," he says.  "Today, that mortality is 5 percent or less."

Modern medicine continues to affirm the value of human Life in breakthroughs that help preborn and newborn children stay alive.  Recently, we brought you the story of the Embrace Nest, a device that helps newborns regulate their body temperatures in regions where incubators are not available.  Another remarkable breakthrough led to the discovery that a certain rare blood type can be used to create vaccines to prevent mortality in pregnancies at-risk for Rhesus disease.  We have also seen incredible strides made in fetal surgery thanks to the capacity of physicians to print 3-dimensional images of affected fetal structures in order to practice and develop tailored methods specific to that child’s needs. 

Has a medical advance helped to save the life of your child?  We would love to hear about your experience in the comments below. 

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