Each year, tens of thousands of premature babies sustain brain injuries caused by lack of oxygen because children born before the 42 weeks of pregnancy tend to have immature lungs and blood cells.
They just don’t have the delivery capacity to push oxygen to the brain, Joseph Scafidi, DO, a neurologist at Children’s National Health System, told NPR in a recent interview.
"Many of the children that I have in my clinic have either cerebral palsy or they have issues with motor skills as a result of what's known as perinatal hypoxia," said Scafidi, a principal investigator at the Center for Neuroscience Research.
But Scafidi, Vittorio Gallo, PhD, Director of the Center for Neuroscience Research and other members of Children’s team, have uncovered evidence in studies with mice that show certain procedures can prevent complications linked to brain injuries among premature children. They reported their findings in the journal Nature.
How to heal an injured brain
Those procedures involve using a substance called epidermal growth factor (EGF). In their studies of baby mice, the researchers found that repeated doses of EGF led to complete repair of brain injuries, even though the rodents didn’t get enough oxygen after birth, Gallo told NPR. “It was really amazing,” Gallo said. “These mice looked identical to the mice that were not exposed to the injury.
Although they were successful in administering the EGF to mice, use in babies is probably still a long way off, Gallo told NPR, in part, because many growth factors are known to encourage the growth of tumors as well as new cells.
What’s next for the researchers?
Still, the Children’s researchers’ findings have led to a greater understanding of perinatal complications that have until now been poorly understood. The treatment may be feasible for premature children with what’s known as diffuse white matter injury that results in chronic neurodevelopmental impairments.
Gallo praised the research as the result of a multidisciplinary team effort among investigators at Children’s National’s Center for Neuroscience Research, Yale University School of Medicine, and Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“We are very committed to advancing our understanding of perinatal brain injury, with the ultimate goal of developing new therapeutic approaches that will improve functional recovery in premature children,” Gallo said.