Helping the Premature
Canada spends approximately $3 billion each year on the treatment of premature infants-and the costs are rising as each year goes by. Babies born prematurely often suffer from mental retardation even blindness, and half of these infants go on to develop crippling Cerebral Palsy. Clearly, the cause and treatment of premature births is one of the greatest challenges in pediatric medicine.
Dr. Sylvain Chemtob of the Université de Montréal is renowned for his leadership in understanding prematurity and its sequelae. He has identified a number of biochemical processes called autoregulation, which lead to normal circulatory function. But in the premature infant, something goes wrong with that process and otherwise healthy tissues are either subjected to excess oxygen leading to oxygen toxicity or are starved of the oxygen they need to fully develop. Chemtob's work has also led to new treatments for improving blood circulation to the undeveloped retina. As a result, in many cases blindness can be prevented.
As survival rates for these newborns improve, so too does the technology involved in their treatment. New treatment modalities aimed at improving blood circulation will have spin-off benefits to the general population as well. Treatments and new detection equipment developed for the tiniest of patients are equally effective on adults. There are wide-reaching implications for many other research endeavors.
Despite the progress already made, there are still many daunting questions.
Why does the body induce labour before the fetus has come to full term? (Studies suggest hormonal and environmental factors are at work.)
Can drug therapies alone reduce the incidence of premature birth? (The body's induction compounds often overwhelm existing drugs.)
Can brain damage and blindness be prevented or reduced? (New therapies have demonstrated an ability to better regulate blood circulation in the tissues.)
Numerous international studies have revealed a steady upward trend in the incidence of severely premature babies born each year. As his research continues, Dr. Chemtob will study the causes and outcomes of premature birth, and will develop therapeutic modalities to avoid potentially catastrophic outcomes. If the huge human and financial costs to society are to be reduced, prevention is the ultimate goal and continuing research the key.