British doctors have become the first in the world to administer xenon gas to stricken newborn babies while travelling in an ambulance.
Two babies at risk of brain injury after being deprived of oxygen during birth were given the inert gas as they were transferred between hospitals. Using xenon to prevent brain injuries in newborns was first performed in 2010 and has since been used on a limited number of specialist wards in the UK. It is currently undergoing clinical trials in Bristol.
The pioneering treatment must be carried out within a tight timeframe in order to be effective - meaning many sick babies have missed out as they could not reach a participating hospital in time.
But in a world first, experts from the Universities of Bristol and Swansea have built equipment which allows xenon gas to be administered in a transportable incubator. This means babies can receive xenon and cooling therapy immediately after birth and during ambulance journeys between neonatal units.
Every year more than 1,000 otherwise healthy babies born at full term die or suffer brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen and blood supply at birth, which can lead to life-long problems such as cerebral palsy.
Poppy Laker was the second baby in the world to be given xenon during transit after she was deprived of oxygen during her birth last Wednesday. Parents Stephen and Kelly Laker, from Paulton, Somerset, gave doctors permission to give her the treatment just 30 minutes after her birth after being warned she was at risk of brain injury. Poppy was delivered with forceps after her shoulder became stuck, squashing her umbilical cord, during the 16-hour labour.
The baby, the Lakers' first, was not breathing when she was born at Royal United Hospital in Bath at 5.17pm. Mr Laker, 29, an office worker, said: "They showed us our baby and then whisked her away for resuscitation. A doctor came and spoke to us and explained the cooling and xenon. We had a 30-minute window to decide whether Poppy should have the treatment. We decided we had to do it - any chance of getting her healthy again. It really was a no-brainer to us."
Poppy was immediately taken from Royal United Hospital to Bristol's St Michael's Hospital, where the treatment of cooling and xenon gas treatment is being developed. Her parents said the baby is doing well, has been taken off a ventilator and all medication and now simply has a feeding tube to help her eat.
A team of specialists at St Michael's Hospital first started cooling babies in 1998, reducing their temperatures by a few degrees to lower the risk of brain injury. It is believed that adding xenon treatment to cooling could double success rates. The gas, delivered by the baby's breathing machine, is believed to block processes in the brain which can lead to the death of nerve cells that in turn causes brain damage.
Marianne Thoresen, professor of neonatal neuroscience at the University of Bristol, and Dr John Dingley, consultant anaesthetist and reader in anaesthetics at Swansea University's College of Medicine, have spent the last decade developing the treatment. The xenon and cooling treatment at St Michael's Hospital is being given as part of a £600,000 clinical trial funded by the JP Moulton Charitable Foundation and Sparks (Sport Aiding Medical Research for Kids).