Two recent examples of science serving humanity focus on the very beginning of human life, first by coping with a very common problem associated with preterm birth (PTB), and secondly, predicting PTB before it happens.
A typical pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, and most infants arrive between week 37 and week 41. Babies born before 37 weeks of gestation are deemed to be PTB.
Worldwide, approximately 10% (15 million) of newborns are born premature. In the US, although PTB rates are lower about one in nine than in underdeveloped countries, about one in nine, PTB incidence has been increasing in the past few years. PTB babies often must spend prolonged periods of time in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, at an average cost of $3,000 per day.
Most health complications for babies, including infant mortality, are caused by premature birth. The brand-new human who is born too early is simply not physically developed enough to deal with life outside the womb. Typical complications include weak functioning lungs, vulnerability to infection, and falling body temperatures that are difficult to control.
Current medical technology is cutting edge and does help combat the problems endemic among PTB babies, but it comes at a high price. In underdeveloped areas of the world, that technology may not be available at any cost.
The Feeding Difficulty Syndrome
Approximately 70% of PTB infants display a poor and uncoordinated ability to suck and swallow, leading to significant difficulty in transitioning to breast or bottle feeding. These problems may cause a failure to thrive, as well as indicate potentially impaired neurological development, possible brain malfunction, and autism.
Nfant, an Atlanta based medical innovation company, has created the first Smart Baby Bottle. They have confronted the feeding difficulty syndrome by developing an internet connected high-tech device which, when attached to a baby bottle, measures the patterns and strength of a baby’s tongue motion on the bottle’s nipple. This process enables doctors to review the sucking patterns of PTB infants and use the data to address current transitional problems, and to assess the potential of brain damage and/or neurological impairment.
Because the process takes place in real time on a cloud-based platform, attending physicians can view the immediate impact of therapeutic measures as they are administered. This makes it possible for the baby’s team to effectively plan clinical care methodologies in time to avoid or mitigate failure to thrive. Enhancing the provision of feeding care by using reliable data collected in real time will shorten the NICU stays of PTB babies, save a great deal of money, and enable doctors to devise much more effective paths of treatment.
Predicting and Preventing Preterm Birth
Until recently, there had been no reliable way to assess a pregnant woman’s susceptibility to premature birth. Indeed, the first symptom of PTB is usually the onset of labor. At that point, the medical team is desperately managing an unforeseen problem, instead of predicting it in advance and then finding ways to ameliorate or avoid the problem altogether.
But now medical researchers at Brigham Young University have created an Integrated Microfluidic Device that can better detect the possibility of premature infant delivery. The device uses a single drop of blood to quickly and efficiently determine the presence of nine biomarker “flags” that indicate the expectant mother’s propensity for PTB.
(“Biomarkers” are proteins and peptides found in the human bloodstream which are related to various medical conditions and, when isolated and analyzed, serve as diagnostic indicators of those conditions.)
The instrument devised at BYU is simple, compact and inexpensive, and it produces prompt results. The current prototype, containing the microchip controller and analytic instruments, is about the size of a shoebox. It can be used in either urban or rural locales, and may therefore have special application in underdeveloped countries.
With widespread usage, the device will be a reliable monitor for both the potential and the severity of looming PTB. The predictive tools currently in use are based on general risk factors which are too imprecise to trigger preventative treatment. However, the protocol created by the BYU team provides precise and reliable information which enables treating physicians to take whatever measures are necessary to give a newborn the best possible shot at a healthy start in life.
It is exhilarating to observe the ever-increasing pace of medical research in obstetrics, and these two examples of scientifically enhanced outcomes for our precious newcomers are particularly heartening. Let me know what you think! Thaïs