Giving newborns with underdeveloped lungs a fighting chance

Severe complications associated with weak lungs in newborns could soon be preventable with the use of a world-first preclinical model.

Babies with small and underdeveloped lungs have a condition called lung hypoplasia (LH) which makes it difficult for them to breathe at birth. As a result they need significant assistance to transition from fetal to newborn life. Sadly, these newborns are susceptible to severe complications that affect their lungs, heart and brain.

Scientists at Hudson Institute of Medical Research hope that the development of a preclinical model that mimics the symptoms of LH will help improve the understanding of the processes involved in transitioning to newborn life for infants with LH, and result in better treatment plans at birth.

Dr Erin McGillick

Published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the study by Dr Erin McGillick and PhD student Indya Davies and colleagues (Hudson Institute and Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Monash University) is the first to show physiological evidence for the detrimental effects of LH in a preclinical model, such as reduced respiratory function. The team observed reduced air into and blood flow through the lungs during transition which are the two key components necessary for fetuses to successfully transition to newborn life.

Dr McGillick says the development of a LH preclinical model is the first step to finding ways to help babies with underdeveloped lungs.

Lung hypoplasia affects around 1 in 1000 births

Apart from their lungs, babies with LH often develop normally during pregnancy as their lungs are not required to perform gas exchange, which is provided by the placenta. However, after birth the newborn becomes solely reliant on their lungs to perform gas exchange. In newborns with LH, their small and underdeveloped lungs are unable to sufficiently perform the role of gas exchange.

“Current clinical management of newborns with LH is largely based on expert opinion rather than scientific evidence. Our work provides a better understanding for how infants transition from fetal to newborn life when they have under-developed lungs,” says Dr McGillick.

“These findings provide physiological mechanisms causing the symptoms observed clinically in babies with LH. Now we have an opportunity to identify better ways to assist babies with LH to make the transition to newborn life.”


Hudson Institute, Monash University, The Royal Women’s Hospital.


National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).

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