In the NICU – what is surfactant?

We were recently asked about surfactant and how it helps a premature baby’s lungs.

“Surfactant” is a condensed form of the term “surface-active agent,” meaning something that reduces the surface tension of liquids. So what does that really mean? Example:  Detergents are surfactants – their lowering of the natural surface tension of water is what keeps bubbles from collapsing, and lets dishwater foam.  Mature lungs are foamy organs, largely composed of tiny, bubble-like air sacs that are prevented from collapsing by lung surfactant.  This complex mixture of fatty substances and specialized proteins is produced in the lungs, starting many weeks before birth.

Premature babies often lack lung surfactant.  The more prematurely a baby is born, the less likely it is to be producing enough surfactant to enable normal lung function.  Immature lungs resist inflation and collapse after each exhale.  The effort of breathing under these circumstances – called “respiratory distress syndrome,” or RDS – can exhaust a very small, premature newborn and lead to severe complications and even death.  Survivors of RDS may have brain damage due, in part, to being unable to get enough air.  In recent decades, respiratory treatments have contributed to the improved survival rates for premature babies, but the lungs of some babies have been injured in the process.

Lung surfactant was identified in the 1950s. During the 1980s, many research groups around the world studied surfactant from human amniotic fluid and synthetic varieties.  Such studies showed the safety and effectiveness of both rescue treatment (given to babies already developing RDS) and preventive treatment (given to very premature infants before they show signs of RDS.)

The March of Dimes is pleased to have supported early research on lung surfactant for premature infants.  Widespread use of surfactant has contributed to a significant drop in deaths from RDS and a drop in the U.S. infant mortality rates. In the past decade, the March of Dimes has invested over $2.6 million in research involving lung surfactant.

 

Updated October 2015.

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One Response to “In the NICU – what is surfactant?”

  1. Temerity Jane » Blog Archive » The State of the Penny and other things. Says:

    […] etc – to donate to the March of Dimes, but if you don’t, I have one word for you: surfactant. The March of Dimes is basically my hero right now, and surfactant is why. Recommend on Facebook […]

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