Researchers at The University of Western Australia have established evidence that supports the use of high frequency jet ventilators to help premature babies with respiratory disease.
Professor Jane Pillow, a neonatologist in the School of Women's and Infants' Health based at King Edward Memorial Hospital, said last week marked the first use of the jet ventilator in WA, and the first time it had been used in a maternity hospital in Australia.
Professor Pillow said the ventilator would allow medical staff to care for some of the sickest and smallest babies without causing severe damage to their lungs while encouraging them to develop their breathing muscles.
While the ventilator has been used on babies, older children and adult patients in North America for more than 25 years, the research team found there was surprisingly little evidence to support its current clinical use in premature babies with respiratory disease.
Professor Pillow and PhD student Gabby Musk carried out preliminary research studies using the ventilator in premature lambs.
"This has enabled us to work out what is the best ventilator strategy for lambs with acute neonatal respiratory distress syndrome," Professor Pillow said.
"Our findings have provided us with evidence for optimising lung volume and reducing lung injury as well as providing us with a comprehensive understanding of how the ventilator works.
"We felt that this developmental work was essential before we used it in managing these fragile babies."
Professor Pillow said the jet ventilator differed from a conventional mechanical ventilator in that it provided better gas exchange (moving oxygen in and carbon dioxide out of the lungs) using less pressure than other ventilators.
"The jet ventilator works on the principle that it is gentler to send gas in and out of the lungs by delivering smaller breaths more often."
The researchers aim to start clinical trials before the end of the year to assess whether the ventilator does help babies at risk of developing chronic lung disease to wean from respiratory support earlier and with less lung damage.
Professor Pillow said the Women and Infants Research Foundation had successfully raised funds for two jet ventilators for KEMH through its "Angel Breaths" Campaign. Each machine costs about $60,000.
The first jet ventilator was funded through a community partnership with United Community credit union which raised more than $30,000 and other donations came from families and public donations.
A second jet ventilator funded by the ABN Foundation is due to arrive at KEMH at the end of the month while Princess Margaret Hospital for Children's neonatal unit has received funding from the PMH Foundation for a jet ventilator for PMH.