Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine ITEM are working with partners to develop a system that would allow drugs to be administered as aerosols in an efficient and breath-triggered manner. This would shorten therapy duration, thereby easing the strain on little bodies.

Worldwide, around 15 million babies are born prematurely every year – and the trend is growing. Industrialized countries are no exception to this development. According to World Health Organization (WHO) figures, the rate in Germany is 9.2 per 100 newborns.

One of the most common complications in premature babies is bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a chronic lung disease caused by the artificial ventilation that the infants often need.

Also, because the preterm infants' immune systems are not fully developed, they have an increased risk of infection. Lung infections are best treated with inhaled drugs. However, there are no inhalation systems that are specially adapted to the needs of premature babies and other newborns, as developing the corresponding technologies is very complicated due to the specific breathing characteristics of the tiny patients.

Preterm infants typically have a high respiratory rate of 40 to over 60 breaths per minute and short inhalation periods of 0.25 to 0.4 seconds. On top of this, neonatal lungs have only a small tidal volume, posing extra difficulties for inhalation treatment.

For this reason, scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine ITEM in Hannover are working together with partners from industry and research to develop a new inhalation system allowing premature babies to receive an efficient inhalation therapy that is gentle on their lungs. 

Sensor film for monitoring the respiration of premature babies 

The innovative inhalation system combines two technologies: A nasal prong with a miniature aerosol valve that is directly applied to the nose of the preterm infant. With a response time of just a few milliseconds, the aerosol valve allows the active ingredient to be released in a rapid, targeted manner.

Opening of the valve is controlled by a sensor film. Laid on the abdominal wall of the premature baby, this flexible matrix uses sensors to detect the movement of the upper abdomen, thereby measuring the exact moment the baby breathes in.

For the precise release of the aerosol, the measurement signal controls the micro valve via an intelligent algorithm. "The timing of the inhalation must be caught with an accuracy of about 20 milliseconds. Placing normal sensors in the exhalation region of a respirator does not permit this level of precision," explains the researcher.