Physiologist Dr. Thomas Shaffer, of the Temple University of Medicine, has developed an experimental breathing technique which may eventually be sued in neonatal units to keep premature newborns alive.

The breathing technique, called Liquid Ventilation (LV), relies on fluid (fluorocarbon) instead of air to deliver oxygen to the lungs and remove carbon dioxide.  It has given premature animals a chance to survive by allowing their immature lungs to function under conditions similar to those in the womb.

The lungs are attached through an endotrachial tube to a pair pumps.  Oxygen rich fluid (oxygenated fluorocarbon) is delivered by one pump, while carbon dioxide-laded fluid is removed by the other.

Limited animals

LV has many advantages over air delivered oxygen: immature lungs are more elastic and easier to inflate; there is increased arterial oxygenation and decreased carbon dioxide levels; fluid because it offer a more natural method of gas exchange, causes less damage to fragile, immature lung tissue.

To date, the use of LV has been limited to animals, but Shaffer hopes to introduce his technique to neonatal units in the near future.  He admits though that a number of ethical and moral issues are related to his LV technique.  Foremost in his mind is the fact that the premature animals (lambs) in his study are the development equivalent of an 18-week-old fetus.  Legal abortions are regularly performed at this age.

Aside from this moral dilemma though, LV holds out much hope for premature infants.  According to Shaffer, LV will “redefine true viability,” as the limits of survival are extended to a degree of pre-maturity not possible before.