19 November 2012

December Science Café: Babies, bubbles and balloons


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — What do balloons and bubbles have to do with breathing?

Currently, premature babies often face serious health risks because of reduced lung function, a condition called infant respiratory distress syndrome. It’s what happened to the late President John F. Kennedy’s youngest child, who was born prematurely and died two days after his birth. But in the nearly half century since then, doctors have devised a way to successfully aid a preemie’s breathing. They inject a cow’s lung surfactant into the preemie’s lungs.

Joanna Long, a University of Florida associate professor and lung researcher.Joanna Long, a University of Florida associate professor and lung researcher, will speak at the December 2012 Science Café. “The animal-based fluid works extremely well,” Long said, “but it’s very expensive and you cannot use that same therapy on older children or adults.”

Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, for example, died suddenly after developing pneumonia — although he was otherwise a healthy 53-year-old. Likewise, the oldest son of renowned French movie star Gérard Depardieu, actor Guillaume Depardieu, died suddenly at 37 from severe pneumonia. If caught early, pneumonia can be successfully treated with antibiotics. But if a severe infection settles deep in the lungs, it can damage lung surfactant and kill.

Similarly, loss or damage to lung surfactant is seen in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), interstitial lung disease (which affects the tissue around the air sacs of the lungs), and alveolar proteinosis (a rare disease in which protein builds up in the air sacs, or alveoli).

Long has worked for about eight years to develop a synthetic surfactant that could be used to treat lung conditions in adults as well as help preemies. The synthetic surfactant might possibly be used in drug delivery directly to the lungs, too. Although there’s still much to be done, she finds her research challenging and exciting.

“It’s a particularly difficult problem to address since it's a really complicated substance,” she said. “If we could develop a really good surfactant replacement and tailor it to specific diseases, it could revolutionize the treatment of lung disorders. We have some pretty good ideas, but we still have a long way to go.”