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Caffeine and Viagra Helping Babies Born Prematurely

Sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, and caffeine are being used to help babies born prematurely.

Sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, and caffeine are being used to help babies born prematurely.

Caffeine and Viagra hardly seem like the sort of combination one would associate with the care of premature babies. However, neonatologists across the United States are discovering that these two unlikely medications can be extremely helpful in stabilizing the extremely delicate condition of infants born prematurely.

In the case of Viagra or its active ingredient, sildenafil citrate, this news offers further evidence that the family of drugs known as PDE5 inhibitors is far more versatile than originally thought.

Eases Pulmonary Hypertension

As for the drug’s use in caring for preemies, it eases the symptoms of pulmonary hypertension, a form of high blood pressure in the lungs that can make it hard for the preemies’ tiny hearts to pump an adequate supply of blood to their lungs.

This use of sildenafil in the care for prematurely born babies is a rough equivalent of its use to treat adults with pulmonary arterial hypertension. The FDA has approved U.S. marketing of the drug under the brand name Revatio for treating PAH in adults.

A Complementary Role

Caffeine plays a complementary role in the very important task of stabilizing respiratory health for preemies and other newborns who suffer from bronchopulmonary dysplasia, or BPD.

Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, has one of the country’s few comprehensive treatment and research centers for BPD. Among the preemies that have received care in the hospital’s BPD center is Autymn Tackett, who was born at week 26 and weighed only 1.6 pounds.

Caffeine for Infants?

Autymn’s mother, Jennifer, said she was surprised to learn the hospital was ¨using medications like caffeine especially when I wasn’t allowed to have a cup of coffee during pregnancy.¨ However, she acknowledges that it has helped her daughter immensely even though ¨it’s something that you would not imagine being used for a baby.¨

Just as adults depend on a morning jolt of caffeine to get their day started, neonatologists have discovered that giving preemies carefully monitored doses of caffeine help to overcome a complication seen in many prematurely born babies. In this common complication of premature birth, infants simply forget that they have to breathe regularly.

Caffeine in small amounts can help stimulate the brains of infants born prematurely.

Caffeine in small amounts can help stimulate the brains of infants born prematurely.

According to Edward Shepherd, M.D., head of the Neonatology Section at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, ¨consistently giving these little babies the equivalent of a cup of coffee can have remarkable results.¨

Stimulates Brain Activity

The caffeine stimulates the brains of preemies, helping them to remember to breathe, which in turn stimulates their lungs and diaphragm to strength their overall respiratory systems. ¨The better their lungs work in the short term, the better their brain health will be in the future, preventing lifelong neurologic problems,” Dr. Shepherd explains.

About 1 to 2 percent of the neonates at Nationwide Children’s Hospital receive sildenafil to help them overcome the effects of pulmonary hypertension. A spokesperson for the hospital points out that pulmonary hypertension is the leading cause of death in babies with BPD after the first month of life. Since the hospital began using sildenafil to treat this condition, Nationwide Children’s has virtually eliminated pulmonary hypertension as a cause of death among older babies.

Rules Eased in Intensive Care

Although the FDA has not approved sildenafil for this use in newborns, doctors working in an intensive care environment are granted greater latitude in treating the sickest infants under their care.

Dr. Shepherd points out that caring for premature babies ¨is different than caring for adults or older children. We adapt what has been learned in adults and pediatrics for our very special, unique neonates. These babies’ lives depend on medication that is reliable and can help lead them into a healthy childhood.¨

Sildenafil is also being extensively studied as a possible treatment for pregnant women who have been diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction, or IUGR, a condition in which an unborn baby is not developing at a normal rate, according to WebMD.

Promotes Placental Blood Flow

In Viagra, sildenafil helps men to get erections by optimizing blood flow to the penis. Preliminary testing has shown that sildenafil given to pregnant women with IUGR increases blood flow to the placenta. This increase in placental blood flow can help babies who are not growing at a normal rate to gain weight at an accelerated pace.

Sildenafil is being investigated as a possible treatment for mothers-to-be who are diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction, or IUGR.

Sildenafil is being investigated as a possible treatment for mothers-to-be who are diagnosed with intrauterine growth restriction, or IUGR.

Extreme cases of IUGR may lead to stillbirth. Even if this worst possible development is avoided, the condition can expose the baby to a host of problems that may show up during pregnancy or delivery, as well as after birth. Among such problems, according to WebMD, are decreased oxygen levels, difficulty handling the stress of vaginal delivery, low birth weight, low blood sugar, reduced resistance to infection, trouble maintaining body temperature, and an abnormally high red blood cell count.

Other Complications

Other complications sometimes seen in IUGR babies include breathing problems as a result of inhaling stools passed while in the uterus and low Apgar scores. Newborns are given the so-called Apgar tests minutes after birth to assess their health across five categories: breathing effort, heart rate, muscle tone, reflexes, and skin color. A score of 0, 1, or 2 is given the newborn in each category, after which the scores for all five categories are totaled. A total score of less than 7 usually indicates that the newborn requires some sort of special care.

Long-term studies to determine the efficacy of sildenafil when used in the treatment of IUGR are currently underway in Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The study Down Under is actually a collaboration between medical researchers in both Australia and New Zealand.

Phil Baker Part of Study

Participating in the joint study Down Under is Philip Baker, director of New Zealand’s Gravida: National Centre for Growth and Development. Originally from the United Kingdom, Baker has been a pioneer in the study of sildenafil as a potential therapy for the treatment of IUGR.

As early as the late 1990s, Baker began laboratory testing using human tissue samples and sildenafil. He later graduated to animal testing in an effort to evaluate sildenafil’s potential. Encouraged by early findings from this preliminary testing, Baker said he is happy to be ¨getting towards the end of what has been a very long research program.¨

Baker went on to say, ¨We’ve reached a point where the volume of evidence in the laboratory and animal studies is compelling and we want to translate these findings into genuine patient benefit.¨ To do that, he said, teams of investigators in several countries are collaborating to create ¨a network of trials that will fit together and provide a definitive answer.”

Don Amerman is a freelance author who writes extensively about a wide array of nutrition and health-related topics.

 

Don Amerman has spent more than three decades in the business of writing and editing. During the last 15 years, his focus has been on freelance writing. For almost all of his writing, He has done all of his own research, both online and off, including telephone and face-to-face interviews where possible. Don Amerman on Google+