A common concern in the NICU these days is the lack of opportunity to intubate. A combination of an increasing pool of learners combined with a move towards a greater reliance on non-invasive means of respiratory support is to blame in large part. With this trend comes a declining opportunity to practice this important skill and with it a challenge to get a tube into the trachea when it really counts. One such situation is a baby with escalating FiO2 requirements who one wishes to provide surfactant to. Work continues to be done in the area of aerosolized surfactant but as of yet this is not quite ready for prime time. What if there was another way to get surfactant to where it was needed without having to instill it directly into the trachea whether through a catheter (using minimally invasive techniques) or through an endotracheal tube?

Installation of surfactant into the trachea

Lamberska T et al have published an interesting pilot study looking at this exact strategy. Their paper entitled Oropharyngeal surfactant can improve initial stabilisation and reduce rescue intubation in infants born below 25 weeks of gestation takes a look at a strategy of instilling 1.5 mL of curosurf directly into the pharynx for infants 22-24 weeks through a catheter inserted 3-4 cm past the lips as a rapid bolus concurrent with a sustained inflation maneuver (SIM) of 25 cm of H2O for 15 seconds. Two more SIMs were allowed of the heart rate remained < 100 after 15 seconds of SIM. The theory here was that the SIM would trigger an aspiration reflex as the pressure in the pharynx increased leading to distribution of surfactant to the lung. The study compared three epochs from January 2011 – December 2012 when SIM was not generally practiced to July 2014 – December 2015 when SIM was obligatory. The actual study group was the period in between when prophylactic surfactant with SIM was practiced for 19 infants.

A strength of the study was that resuscitation practices were fairly standard outside of these changes in practice immediately after delivery and the decision to intubate if the FiO2 was persistently above 30% for infants on CPAP. A weakness is the size of the study with only 19 patients receiving this technique being compared to 20 patients before and 20 after that period. Not very big and secondly no blinding was used so when looking at respiratory outcomes one has to be careful to ensure that no bias may have crept in. If the researchers were strongly hoping for an effect might they ignore some of the “rules around intubation” and allow FiO2 to creep a little higher on CPAP as an example? Hard to say but a risk with this type of study.

What did they find?

The patients in the three epochs were no different from one and other with one potentially important exception. There were higher rates of antenatal steroid use in the study group (95% vs 75 and 80% in the pre and post study epochs). Given the effect of antenatal steroids on reducing respiratory morbidity, this cannot be ignored and written off.

Despite this difference it is hard to ignore the difference in endotracheal intubation in the delivery room with only 16% needing this in the study group vs 75 and 55% in the other two time periods. Interestingly, all of the babies intubated in the delivery area received surfactant at the same percentages as above. The need for surfactant in the NICU however was much higher in the study period with 79% receiving a dose in the study group vs 20 and 35% in the pre and post study groups. Other outcomes such as IVH, severe ROP and BPD were looked at with no differences but the sample again was small.

What can we take from this?

Even taking into account the effect of antenatal steroids, I would surmise that some surfactant did indeed get into the trachea of the infants in the study group. This likely explains the temporary benefit the babies had in the delivery suite. I suspect that there simply was not a big enough dose to fully treat their RDS leading to eventual failure on CPAP and a requirement for intubation. Is all lost though? Not really I think. Imagine you are in a centre where the Neonatologist is not in house and while he/she is called to the delivery they just don’t make it in time. The trainee tries to intubate but can’t get the tube in. Rather than trying several times and causing significant amounts of airway trauma (as well as trauma to their own self confidence) they could abandon further attempts and try instilling some surfactant into the pharynx and proving a SIM. If it works at all the baby might improve enough to buy some time for them to be stabilized on CPAP allowing time for another intubater to arrive.

While I don’t think there is enough here to recommend this as an everyday practice there just might be enough to use this when the going gets tough. No doubt a larger study will reveal whether there really is something here to incorporate into the tool chest that we use to save the lives of our smallest infants.