A promising drug for preventing brain damage in babies

New research indicates the drug erythropoietin may be effective in protecting babies from brain damage. Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE) is a dangerous complication that can occur during delivery. Newborns suffer brain damage due to oxygen deprivation in the nervous system, which can cause debilitating birth injuries such as cerebral palsy and even death if left untreated. HIE affects around three in 1,000 infants, but its exact cause is unknown.

Erythropoietin is commonly used in hospitals to treat anemia. It is also a performance-enhancing drug that is banned in professional sports. Researchers now believe erythropoietin can help treat HIE.

Currently, standard HIE treatment involves inducing hypothermia within the newborn immediately after birth to prevent cell death. The baby’s body temperature is reduced to 92.3 degrees Fahrenheit using a cooling blanket or hat. However, the process is not effective for all babies with HIE. Around 40 percent can suffer disabilities or die.

UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in San Francisco, California, and six other hospitals across the United States conducted a clinical trial involving 50 infants with HIE-related brain injuries. They found administering erythropoietin was effective in reducing the risk of brain injury. Overall, 33 percent of babies given the drug were found to have no remaining brain damage in comparison to around 11 percent who received a placebo.

“We’re hopeful that EPO [erythropoietin] not only reduces the extent of brain injury, but also allows the brain to be more effective at repairing itself during the recovery process,” Yvonne Wu, the study’s lead author and a neurology and pediatrics professor at the hospital, said in a statement.

The findings were published in the journal Pediatrics in May. The researchers are now planning a larger drug trial with 500 newborns in order to learn more about the treatment and its wider application.