Dr. Bernard Thébaud still remembers the time when he told a mother that her premature baby was dying from a lung disease and she asked: “Isn’t there anything you can do for my baby now?”
“That’s when I realized that I needed to move research findings quicker from the labs into treatments for patients,” recalls Dr. Thébaud, a neonatologist at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and a senior scientist with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute.
That baby had a genetic condition known as surfactant protein B deficiency. In the lungs, the surface of the tiny air sacs (alveoli), where oxygen goes into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide comes out, is coated in a thin layer that contains pulmonary surfactant.
Pulmonary surfactant prevents the collapse of the alveoli and plays a role in defending the lungs from bacteria and viruses. The lungs start making surfactant around 24 weeks into a pregnancy and produce adequate amounts at 35 weeks. But some babies inherit a genetic mutation that leads to a partial or complete lack of surfactant protein B. Although these babies are given an artificial surfactant and are put on a ventilator (breathing machine), the prognosis is poor; many babies die in their first few months.
Currently, there is no cure for this deficiency. The only effective treatment is a lung transplant; however, laboratory research shows promise.
Dr. Thébaud’s research into surfactant protein deficiency has the potential to save the lives of babies worldwide while also leading to discoveries for other incurable diseases such as cystic fibrosis.