Filed Under:

A Growth Factor Heals The Damage To A Preemie's Brain — In Mice

Play associated audio

A naturally occurring substance called epidermal growth factor appears to reverse a type of brain damage that's common in very premature infants.

Repeated doses of EGF led to the complete repair of brain injuries in baby mice that didn't get enough oxygen after birth, researchers reported in the journal Nature. "It was really amazing," says Vittorio Gallo, of Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C. "These mice looked identical to the mice that were not exposed to the injury."

The result is important because each year, tens of thousands of premature babies sustain brain injuries caused by a lack of oxygen, says Joseph Scafidi, a neurologist at Children's and an author of the Nature paper. "Many of the children that I have in my clinic have either cerebral palsy or they have issues with motor skills as a result of what's known as perinatal hypoxia," he says.

This lack of oxygen near the time of birth occurs because children born before the 32nd week of pregnancy tend to have immature lungs and blood cells that are not yet able to deliver enough oxygen to the brain, Scafidi says. So even when they get supplemental oxygen in a neonatal intensive care unit, he says, some brain cells may die.

Previous research had shown that oxygen deprivation often kills specific brain cells called oligodendrocytes. These cells form myelin — the insulation that is wrapped around nerve fibers, Gallo says. "Without myelin, nerve cells do not communicate properly."

Experiments in mice showed that the damaged brain of a newborn mouse actually tries to replace dead or damaged oligodendrocytes, Gallo says. "The problem," he adds, "is that this happens too late."

The researchers thought EGF might start the process sooner, and it did. But the treatment worked only when it was given soon after the injury occurred. That suggests that premature human infants would probably have to be treated within a few weeks of birth, Gallo says.

The EGF was given to mice through the nose — which means it would be easy to administer to a human infant. But use in babies is probably still a long way off, Gallo says, in part because many growth factors are known to encourage the growth of tumors as well as new cells.

So EGF and other growth factors with the potential to repair brain damage may be tried first in adults with multiple sclerosis, a condition that's also caused by a lack of myelin, says Regina Armstrong, of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda. And it's possible, she says, that researchers will find a growth factor treatment that works against both MS and the sort of brain damage found in very premature infants.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

With 'Formation,' Beyoncé Lights Up The Internet. Here's What People Are Saying

The singer's new music video quickly drew commentary of all kinds — on its references to being black in America, Hurricane Katrina and Black Lives Matter.
NPR

Calif. Restaurant Gives Diners — And Sea Lions — An Ocean View

The Marine Room is a restaurant right on the beach. When the tide is high, waves hit the windows, and bring in unexpected visitors.
NPR

In The Light Of The Morning After, How Bad Was Rubio's Repetition?

"I would pay for them to keep running that clip, because that's what I believe passionately," Rubio said of a much-aired video excerpt if him repeating a line at Saturday's debate.
NPR

Super Bowl 50 Tightens Cybersecurity

This year's Super Bowl will be held in the most technologically advanced stadium in the world. FBI special agent John Lightfoot talks to NPR's Rachel Martin about the threat of cyber attacks.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.