A drug commonly used to treat anemia may help lower the risk of preterm birth complications. The results of the study could mean that one million extra babies could live. Fifteen million babies are born prematurely according to World Health Organization (WHO) reports.
Erythropoietin (EPO) is given to anemia patients as it improves the amount of hemoglobin and red blood cells in the blood. Some preterm babies are given the drug to reduce the chance of them needing a blood transfusion later on. The red blood cells are important because they carry oxygen around the blood.
One of the biggest risks of preterm birth is the brain not getting enough nutrients and oxygen. This can lead to brain damage, which is linked to hearing and visual problems later in life. It can also be the cause of numerous disabilities as the brain spreads information across the whole central nervous system.
New studies have also shown that there is a neuroprotective property to EPO. This just means that the central nervous system is protected from degeneration and injury. This was the first benefit investigated within the Swiss cognitive development study on preterm babies.
The study involved babies born prematurely. These are babies born before 37 weeks gestation, and are the ones most at risk of developing complications later in life. However, the study used babies born between 26 and 31 weeks 6 days gestation, considering the higher risk. Almost 500 babies received three doses of one of two drugs. One was EPO and the other placebo. The injections were given at three hours, 12 to 18 hours and 36 to 42 hours after birth.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were used to see if preterm birth risks could be lowered with the anemia drug. Out of the infants, 165 were chosen, with 77 of those part of the EPO group. The 77 showed less brain damage than the 88 who had received the placebo drug.
This is just the first part of the study and there are still more tests to do. Miami Children’s Hospital neonatologist Dr. David Mendez was not convinced by the results, explaining there are many new questions raised by the results. This is not the first time drugs have been used to protect brain tissue after preterm birth, and work still needs to be carried out.
Some believe that not enough babies were given the drug. Also the selection of babies was not randomized, which suggests that the results were expected. There are reports that EPO is no longer the preferred option when reducing blood transfusion needs in premature babies. There are too many dangers to the drug.
While it increases the red blood cell count, the white blood cell count is reduced. This could lead to other health risks as blood cannot clot as well. There are also concerns that the use of EPO will lead to retinopathy of prematurity, an eye condition that can lead to total blindness. This is why many neonatologists choose not to use the drug now. While the study results do show that preterm birth risks may be lowered with the use of the anemia drug, it is still evident that more research studies are needed.
By Alexandria Ingham