University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Children's Hospital doctor David Hackam conducted a 34-week study on mice that could be a breakthrough for the cause, treatment, and prevention of necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC, a disease in which the intestines die in babies born prematurely. Hackam's findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that when premature baby mice were fed amniotic fluid, it reduced the risk of NEC.
Hackam has been with Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh since 2000. He said current treatments for NEC are mostly inadequate. NEC occurs in about 10% of premature babies, and of those, 25% will die. 50% of babies with NEC require operation, but Hackam said only half of those patients will make it.
Hackam said a premature baby with NEC seems fine in the Intensive Care Unit, but after 2-3 weeks, abnormal symptoms arise.
"They'll stop tolerating their feeds. Their belly will become a little distended. Their stools will become a little bloody, and then they start to get really sick," Hackam said. "By about 24 hours they're either dying or even dead."
Hackam said his study offers a new insight on why babies are at risk to developing NEC and offers a way to potentially prevent and treat the condition.
"When we fed amniotic fluid to mice that we'd rendered premature, we found that the mice were protected from getting NEC," Hackam said.
Hackam said one of the possible issues in proposing trials of the treatment with human babies could be the "ick" factor, but argues the treatment would be something that naturally occurs in the womb.
"They drink this amniotic fluid. It bathes their gut," Hackam said. "The premature baby is constantly swimming in amniotic fluid, and the baby is swallowing the amniotic fluid all the time, and if the premie comes out, they lose that amniotic fluid."
Before doing any human trials Hackam said they would go through the necessary regulations and make sure they have buy-in from doctors who take care of premature babies, make sure the procedures are safe, and take it to the Institutional Review Board that consists of doctors along with community people.
Hackam said if trials are allowed, the amniotic fluid would be collected at the time of premature birth instead of being discarded with the afterbirth material. He said it would be similar to banking umbilical cord blood for individual babies.