Case study: Understanding infant lung structure
01 Jan 2007



Scientists at the UK’s ISIS neutron source are contributing to research that could help save the lives of premature babies.

​​Understanding infant lung structure
  • Infant Respiratory Distress Syndrome affects approximately 50% of babies born at 28-32 weeks
  • Current treatments come from an aerosol sprayed into the lungs derived from animal sources
  • ISIS scientists are testing cheaper and more accessible synthetic treatments that could help save babies’ lives

By understanding the proteins in infant lungs, researchers are generating new knowledge which enables the biopharmaceutical industry to develop better products for paediatric healthcare.

A thin liquid layer lines the internal surface of our lungs, and each breath changes its surface tension. A coating of natural lung surfactant adjusts the tension to let oxygen into the bloodstream.

The absence of this surfactant in premature babies causes Respiratory Distress Syndrome and breathing difficulties. It is currently treated with a surfactant aerosol sprayed directly into the lungs.  But lung surfactants currently come from animal sources, and this introduces regulatory and financial implications in order to avoid cross-species contamination or disease.

Lung surfactants are a complex mixture including proteins and phospholipids, the molecules which make most of the body’s cell membranes.

Working in collaboration with the University of Queensland in Australia, ISIS researchers were able to mimic the change in lung capacity to discover how proteins and phospholipids act together to enable lung function.

“ISIS is the premier place in the world for researchers to work with neutrons reflected off liquid surfaces,” says neutron scientist Dr Stephen Holt. “New instruments at the ISIS second target station will further improve research capabilities at the interface between gases and liquids, and will keep the UK at the forefront of neutron research.”

The advances in knowledge at ISIS are helping to develop synthetic lung surfactants which can be more precisely targeted at clinical needs and made more accessible in developing countries.

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Research date: January 2007