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Engineering Grant May Lead to Benefits for Preemies

Monday, September 17, 2012

A breakthrough method of dealing with a major complication of premature birth being researched at the University of Kansas School of Engineering could make breathing easier for babies born before 28 weeks and bring a sigh of relief to parents.

The lungs are one of the last organs to fully mature during fetal development, and babies born before seven months can encounter significant challenges in routine breathing.

Prajna Dhar, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering at KU, is working on developing a synthetic substance to aid in the breathing process for premature infants.

At the heart of the research is a soapy substance known as a lung surfactant, which coats the alveoli of the lungs and helps reduce the significant amount of energy required to inflate and deflate the lungs with each breath.

“Babies born before 28 weeks do not usually have this soapy material. Their lungs are collapsed and they cannot breathe,” Dhar said. 

The current method for treating lung problems for premature babies involves extracting the soapy material from the lungs of a cow or pig, Dhar said.  After the materials are purified and additives are included, these animal surfactants are ready for use in humans. 

“That process typically works, but it’s not without its problems,” Dhar said.  “For one, the mixture from animals does not reach and sufficiently coat all parts of the lung, and that can lead to other diseases cropping up, including creating complications for the body’s immune system.”

That led Dhar to seek an alternative to using lung surfactant from animals.

“So what we are trying to do is make this material completely synthetic and make it in such a way that will spread throughout the entire lung, while achieving the same performance as a native surfactant.  That can solve a lot of the problems we see with using an animal lung, while aiding premature newborns,” Dhar said.  “In particular, we are looking at the role of using small amounts of cholesterol, mixed with other lipids and proteins and how this can help in this spreading property of the synthetic surfactant”.

Dhar’s project is one of four funded through an $11 million grant to KU to establish the Center for Molecular Analysis of Disease Pathways, an NIH Center of Biomedical Research Excellence headed by Susan Lunte, Ralph Adam Distinguished Professor of chemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry, with co-investigators Blake Peterson, Regents Distinguished Professor of medicinal chemistry, and Erik Lundquist, professor of molecular biosciences.  See more about the program



The center’s goal is to provide the necessary mentor support and infrastructure to ensure the success of junior investigators in acquiring NIH funding.  The long-term goal is to create a center that encourages basic research scientists to develop enabling technologies that can be used in translational biomedicine, according to the center’s website.

“We’re excited by the prospects of Professor Dhar’s research. It has the potential to save lives and is a great example of what engineers can achieve,” said Stan Rolfe, interim dean of the School of Engineering.


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