Chris Harris, one of our neonatal research colleagues, has recently started measuring patients for his major study comparing the effects of two types of ventilation for babies born prematurely. The United Kingdom Oscillation Study started in 1998 and recruited over 300 babies who were born 12-17 weeks early and needed help with their breathing from a ventilator. All of the babies were given one of two types of breathing support – normal ventilation, where air is pushed into the lungs at a rate and depth about the same as they would do on their own, or ‘high-frequency oscillation ventilation’ or HFOV, where the lungs are inflated and then small amounts of air vibrated, or oscillated, in and out of the lungs at a very fast rate. The idea of the HFOV is that it doesn’t involve the same amount of stretch to the lungs as normal ventilation, possibly preventing some of the damage that can occur to premature babies’ delicate lungs during the crucial weeks after birth while so much lung growth and development is taking place. Chris is also doing some cellular biology as part of his PhD, stretching lung cells in the lab and seeing what inflammatory chemicals are released. This will help give a more complete picture of why HFOV may (or may not) be beneficial.
The UKOS participants were last studied at 11-14 years of age; the results then showed that HFOV seemed to have protected the lungs somewhat, particularly the smaller airways further down in the lungs. These airways are particularly prone to damage as they are still forming during the stage at which these babies were born, and the HFOV perhaps allowed those parts of the lung to continue developing more normally, as they would have done were the babies still in the womb.
The current stage of the research will make detailed lung function measurements again in as many of the participants who are able to come back for more testing, and again compare the children who received HFOV to those who received normal ventilator support. The UKOS “babies” are now young adults, aged 16-18, and so have probably grown a huge amount since their last tests; this growth will have affected their lung function so that’s why it’s important to see how they’re getting on now. Chris has had four patients participate so far and all has gone well thanks to their brilliant efforts, so we’re looking forward to seeing the data come in!