It’s been a while since my last post. Like many centers across North America and worldwide the resuscitation of premature infants as young as 22 weeks is becoming more commonplace. Our own center is in the process of working towards coming up with evidence-based approaches to the care of these fragile infants. One of the questions that has long been asked is whether antenatal steroids really make a difference at these earliest gestational ages. The argument against effectiveness would be that the cards are just so stacked up against these preemies that even steroids may not help. Making matters worse is that the number of babies at this early gestational age included in antenatal steroid trials are extremely small making any conclusions difficult.
In short, the goal of the study was to look at survival and survival without major morbidities for infant born between 22 and 0 days to 23 weeks and 6 days gestational age who either received no antenatal steroids, 1 dose or 2 doses 24 hours apart. Only those mothers who received betamethasone were included and the doses were provided at either 21 or 22 weeks of gestation prior to delivery at 22 and 23 weeks of gestation. The study was retrospective and looked at NICHD neonatal research network data from January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2019. In comparison to all the previous prospective studies in existence which recruited less than 50 preterm infants this young this study managed to recruit 431 infants. In the groups analyzed, there were 25.5% infants who received no antenatal steroids, 18.6% infants receiving a partial course and 55.9% infants receiving complete antenatal steroids.
What did they find?
The authors found evidence that I believe will be reassuring to practitioners deciding whether to provide a course of steroids at these gestational ages. There are questions though that will be raised when looking at this data as well.
The data in table to show a number of interesting findings. Most notably a primary outcome of survival at hospital discharge was improved with a complete course of steroids but not with partial or none. Similarly there were reductions in severe intracranial hemorrhage and survival at 36 weeks postmenstrual age without major medical morbidities.
Figure 2 shows survival to hospital discharge and survival without major neonatal morbidities graphically. What one can more clearly see is that if you are going to give steroids the outcome is best if the mother receives both doses.
On the one hand you might say that this is a slam dunk finding and we should be giving antenatal steroids to all women presenting at 21 and 22 weeks gestational age. I mentioned there would be questions and one of them will have to do with the avoidance of a repeat course of antenatal steroids. There is some literature that suggests repeat dosing of antenatal steroids later in pregnancy is associated with adverse developmental outcomes and also structural changes to the developing brain. This then leads the practitioner and a bit of a quagmire. If the woman presents at 21 or 22 weeks with threatened preterm labor do give her the steroids knowing that only a full course will help her versus waiting to see if she is truly in labor as you are considering whether you should save dosing for a later time in pregnancy. I have no doubt there will be some providers that we will hesitate to give the 1 course if that is their institution practice at this gestational age. This will not be an easy selection to make.
The other question that we will come up as we start to see a single dose antenatal steroid trials coming out is whether such infants will be included in prospective trials. The upcoming SNACS trial which we are participating in is one such trial that will include infants as young as these. It will be interesting to see if prospectively collected clinical trials with adequate numbers of such small infants will demonstrate similar findings that 2 doses really are required to make a meaningful reduction in adverse outcomes. As we have seen with many retrospective studies though such as this one the outcomes may in fact be different when you randomize patients in a prospective fashion.
For now I think the evidence as good as it is we will favor giving steroids to mother’s presenting at these gestational ages. Curious what you think?
In an effort to reduce the incidence of IVH many patient care bundles in the last number of years have advocated for minimal handling. As part of approach to minimal handing an effort to keep the head straight and in some centres elevated has been postulated to help with enhancing venous outflow from the head. By reducing the passive gravity aided flow from the brain back into the thorax the theory would be that this would help minimize venous pressure in the draining cerebral system. Lowering pressure would in turn theoretically reduce the risk of IVH and hopefully the most severe types. The evidence to support this practice has largely been observational in the sense that those units practising this sort of intervention have published reductions in rates of severe IVH such as reported for small baby units. The fly in the ointment however is that many changes occur in the care of these infants so definitively attributing the difference in outcomes to just one intervention such as midline head positioning with elevation of the head can be challenging.
The infants studied were those who would be most vulnerable to IVH so were all <=32 weeks and < 1500g. The authors acknowledged that they would have liked to record over the first 72 hours as this has traditionally become the period of minimal handling in care bundles but claim that they did not have enough data past 48 hours to comment.
Prior to starting positional changes ten minutes of baseline recording was done in the midline position without elevation. Each position was used for a period of 2 hours during which NIRS monitoring was performed. The goal here was to see if the amount of oxygen extraction changed with different head positions and elevations. If the extraction increased in one head position it would be thought to reflect slowed return of venous blood with further extraction of oxygen from the brain.
What did the authors find?
Since I am reporting the findings it shouldn’t surprise you that they found something here. What might surprise you though is the actual difference in what they found. If one would have to guess before sharing the results it would seem that laying the head of the bed flat would not help with venous drainage as much as a 15-30 degree elevation so let’s guess that they would find that. Also, based on a belief that the jugular veins might be kinked if you turn your head to one side or the other let’s guess that midline head positioning does make a difference. Looking at the results below, let’s see if this actually happened.
As you can see the highest NIRS recordings were found in the baseline position and in general the three positions with the head of bed elevated (Position 4-6) and when flat in the midline (Position 1). It would seem then that the anticipated benefit was shown! From a statistical standpoint the third position was found to be different as was the fourth compared to the first position.
What does it all mean though?
A statistically different finding was achieved which shows the 3rd and 4th positions are not as good as baseline for sure but what about clinical significance. The lower limit of normal for NIRS readings is about 60. The means for all of these positions were in the 70s. In fact the difference between the mean of the 3rd and 4th positions and the others were only about 2%. Is this enough to make a difference? I honestly am not sure. There is a difference that reaches statistical significance so if we accept that there may have been some disruption of venous flow is this enough evidence to totally explain the reductions in IVH that have been seen with bundles for minimal handling with positioning? There were a lot of variables here that could not be controlled such as time of day that a baby was in one position or another since it was random. Was there a lot of noise in the unit at the time of one position or another? Depending on circadian rhythms what would the cortisol levels be and might mild changes in blood pressure explain the findings since they are so small?
I don’t want to totally dismiss the findings but suspect that it isn’t just the positioning that is leading to reductions in IVH. The same units that promote small baby care are also pushing breastfeeding rates up, skin to skin care and trying to harmonize other aspects of care. If we are seeing reductions in IVH which is a wonderful thing is it all related to this? Probably not but what this study does in my mind is support the theories about enhancing venous drainage through positioning and I see no reason not to continue this practice and try to keep these infants in the mid line and avoid bothering them as much as possible as they transition from the in-utero to ex-utero environment.
It isn’t often that something comes along that causes me to raise not one but two eyebrows but I suppose the idea of adding insulin to preemies feeds is just such a thing. Apparently this research isn’t that new as there has been some previous animal research and human testing of breastmilk that revealed insulin is present in milk at concentrations of 46 microunit/mL. Testing of amniotic fluid has found even higher levels at 2500 microunits/mL! All of this insulin can’t be there by accident. If you believe in evolution as I do it can’t be by chance that all that insulin doesn’t have a role to play. By extension, since babies swallow amniotic fluid and therefore bath the developing intestine in insulin containing fluid there must be a benefit right?
Let’s do a study looking at benefits of oral insulin added to formula!
Infants included in this study were from 26-33 weeks GA with a birth weight greater than or equal to 750g and postnatal age < 7 days. Since breastmilk has insulin in it already all infants were fed formula. The insulin was NTRA as a dry powder with the dose of 400 microunit/mL chosen based on the amount known to be in amniotic fluid. The study required 76 patients but was stopped after 33 patients when a planned interim analysis found a benefit already to the intervention without any safety concerns identified.
The primary outcome was the time it took to reach full feedings defined as 150 mL/kg/d of enteral formula intake.
As you can see there was about a 1.6 day advantage favouring the group receiving insulin. This represents a 20% reduction in time to full feedings
In terms of secondary outcomes the results were also impressive even more so when one considers the small sample size. While we don’t routinely measure gastric residuals in our centre the authors did these measurements as a proxy for feeding tolerance. They defined low residuals as a goal of < 2 mL/kg in 24 hours. In the insulin group this goal was reached in 1.67 days vs 5.09 days in the placebo group. While this result had a p Value of 0.056 so therefore just missed being significant it is an interesting trend for sure. Again owing to small size while a difference in time to wean off TPN was 2.4 days shorter in the insulin group it was not significantly different. No difference it time to discharge was found but again the difference favoured the insulin group with a mean reduction of about 9 days for singletons.
Below are the growth curves for the first 28 days reflecting a mean weight increase of 768.9g in the insulin group and 643.6g in the placebo arm.
So What’s Next?
I would like to start of by saying I hope one day you say you saw it here first! I think this research is very promising and no doubt a phase 3 trial with larger numbers is on the way. This isn’t quite ready for prime time as the saying goes based on small numbers but it is reassuring. Keep in mind this isn’t for everyone. We want as much as possible to provide breastmilk to our infants as it is more than just growth that we think about and time to full feeds. The question though for the future is whether for mothers who can’t produce enough or don’t want to breastfeed whether a little insulin sprinkled into their infant’s feeding will be just what the doctor ordered. My bet is that in the future you will see this indeed come into practice but we will need to certainly wait for bigger trials to confirm the trends that we are seeing here!@
This is the one as the saying goes that you have all been waiting for! Poractant entered the scene in Canada a few years ago with a lot of promise as a great alternative to the bovine source generally used here. The volume of administration was about half and as the use of MIST/LISA rose in popularity the option to use the lower volume was of interest to many. A study out of London Ontario demonstrated however that the bovine form could be used for LISA/MIST successfully and was written about in Less Invasive Surfactant Administration with High Volume Surfactant.
What about if we look at a real head to head comparison looking at meaningful outcomes like length duration of respiratory support? To do so would require a fairly large sample and would generally be difficult to accomplish but us Canadians opted for a study design to allow this to move forward with a sample size that for a neonatal study I think at least were admirable!
The study design here was a prospective comparative effectiveness cohort study of babies all born under 32 weeks at 13 NICUs across Canada. The study in question was entitled Poractant alfa versus bovine lipid extract surfactant: prospective comparative effectiveness study and is authored by many I consider colleagues and friends! To do this study each centre agreed to start off for 6 months with the bovine surfactant for any baby that had respiratory distress syndrome and in the opinion of the team needed surfactant. After that period each centre switched to poractant for an additional 6 months. This was a pragmatic trial designed to be less rigid with respect to criteria for intubation and allow for a “real world” determination of effect of using one surfactant vs another. While the study was not randomized the collection of outcome data relied on trained abstractors for the Canadian Neonatal Network in each centre. The authors determined that to see a difference in the primary outcome would require 484 patients per surfactant group. What they obtained in terms of recruitment is shown below.
The Results Please
I realize you have been waiting with excitement about what they could have found. Sadly they didn’t find too much!
There was no difference in length of ventilation or for that matter some important outcomes like number of doses of surfactant needed (if one group needed more might they be less effective), BPD, mortality and length of stay. The authors did note a difference in rates of MIST/LISA favouring the poractant group but when they controlled for that variable still found no difference in outcomes. Important to note that though since use of MIST/LISA may reduce the outcome of interest itself but alas no difference.
As with many studies people start digging and looking at secondary outcomes to see if there is anything of interest that pops up. It is worth noting here that whatever is found based on this study design would be an association so one must be careful not to jump to causation which may or may not be at play. For fun though let’s look at a couple of things that cropped up.
What the study does in my mind is demonstrate that if you wish to use either surfactant you may. I suppose then it comes down to comfort and in part whether you believe that use of a lower volume surfactant is better for administration with MIST/LISA. If that is the case then your choice would be poractant. If you don’t care however then it may come down to cost. There has been a difference in cost but I do wonder if the gap may close with demonstration of similar efficacy in this study. If people are indifferent to utility of the two then cost will certainly be a variable to consider!
At this point your head is likely spinning when it comes to managing the PDA. Should we treat it early, late or not at all? My last post was about benign neglect which may be well and good for the unit you work in but if you believe that these ducts can cause problems and want to treat them then you can choose from indomethacin, ibuprofen or paracetamol. Paracetamol (tylenol as you may know it better) is an old dog that has learned some new tricks. The former two drugs can be harder on the kidneys so with some recent data suggesting paracetamol may be equally effective to the other two, interest has grown. I had trouble at first understanding how this drug could help close a PDA since the other two I knew were effective through their anti-prostaglandin activity. It turns out that paracetamol is as well but just through a different mechanism. Paracetamol’s effect is likely through inhibition of the second active site on the prostaglandin H2 synthase, the peroxidase (POX) component.
Oral or IV
If you asked most people which route would be more effective the guess would be IV. Oral meds take time to be absorbed so wouldn’t you want a drug that goes straight to the target tissue as quickly as possible? The answer at least from what we learned with ibuprofen was no. There is in fact a cochrane review on the subject entitled Ibuprofen for the treatment of patent ductus arteriosus in preterm or low birth weight (or both) infants. The conclusion favoured oral dosing and the reason for the greater benefit it turns out has to do with that slow absorption I talked about. While the IV dose will get the drug going where it needs to go faster and give you a quicker peak, the slow absorption of the drug gives you a longer time with a drug level above the blood level required to have the desired effect on ductal closure. In other words, slow and steady wins the race. It’s not surprising then that as knowledge and use of paracetamol spreads that similar questions would arise. This in fact led to a retrospective study looking at this exact question. Gover et al published Oral versus intravenous paracetamol for patent ductus arteriosus closure in preterm infants. which sought to examine the difference in the two routes of administration for 50 infants in their unit that received the drug for closure of a hemodynamically significant PDA. They excluded any infants who had received treatment for a PDA previously or paracetamol for pain relief so that they could really restrict the exposure to just closure of the PDA. They defined hemodynamically significant as a “moderate to large PDA, coupled with evidence of shunt burden, myocardial compromise, and continued need for significant respiratory support.” The drug was given from 3-7 days and was at the discretion of the Neonatologist. Longer courses were given for PDAs that were still open at 3 days and dosing was otherwise the same.
What Did They Find?
In terms of effectiveness the following figure maps out what happened with both oral and IV routes. For the whole 50 patients, 56% achieved closure after one course. Although the numbers are of course small, if you look at the oral group 15/19 or 79% had closure after one course vs 8/20 or 40% with IV alone. That’s quite a difference although again numbers are small here so we have to be careful about jumping to too big a conclusion (although it is in the direction we might have expected from the ibuprofen data). As this was not a randomized study it is difficult to know for certain that other factors were not at play here to explain the difference in closure rates but the authors did attempt to adjust for that and still found a benefit to oral administration.
Could this be explained by a difference in paracetamol levels in the blood? This is what I wondered about earlier in this post so maybe there is something to that? The authors looked at this as well by searching for a difference in trough levels prior to the 5th dose (no different). While it is tempting to write this off as a possibility then it is worth noting this is just one level in time. This was not a prospective, randomized study where serial levels could be taken to establish a pharmacokinetic patterns for the levels. While the one level is not different based on route I can’t help but wonder if these results are indeed real could the levels be above the minimum threshold for ductal closure longer.
An RCT will be needed to look at determining an answer here for sure but this is a great start no doubt. One thing that I can’t help but wonder about in this retrospective study is the “why” each Neonatologist chose oral vs IV. My guess is that in most cases the sicker the baby the more likely they were to receive IV. Babies who were quite sick on vasopressors or had demonstrated poor gut perfusion on ultrasound may have been more likely to get the IV form. These same patients are expected to have greater degrees of systemic inflammation and that is not good for ductal closure. Is the worse effect of IV therapy related to the drug itself or is it related to the overall state of the baby making closure less likely in the presence of inflammation?
I look forward to seeing a prospective study on this but maybe when possible for the time being it wouldn’t hurt when possible to give paracetamol orally? Interesting story that we will hear more about!