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Protecting preemies: The new research that could prevent NEC in prematurely born babies

NEC (or necrotizing enterocolitis) causes intestinal tissue to die in preemies. But now, researchers may have found what causes it and how to prevent it.

CHICAGO — One in 10 babies are born prematurely, before 37 weeks of pregnancy. It’s the number one cause of death of babies in the U.S. 

The little ones that survive often struggle with long-term health problems. Another complication is something known as NEC, and it causes intestinal tissue to die. There are no targeted treatments, but researchers have found what may cause it. Now, they will be able to save more lives.

Little two-year-old Sam Luce is right on target, which is amazing, considering he was born three months premature.

“Sam was born just under two and a half pounds,” says his father, Ben Luce.

His mother, Maureen Luce expresses, “It's hard to describe the size.”

“Day four was the first time we ever got to hold him,” Ben adds.

Sam was suffering from necrotizing enterocolitis, or NEC. It causes intestinal tissue to die.

“They suddenly develop abdominal distention, feeding intolerance, bloody stool, and they may develop signs of shock,” explains Neonatologist and Professor of Pediatrics at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, Isabelle De Plaen, MD.

Doctors are not sure what causes it but neonatologists at Lurie Children’s Hospital found that the decreased development of tiny blood vessels in the intestines could be caused by lower levels of a particular growth hormone. By injecting mice with this growth hormone, they were able to stop the infection.

Dr. De Plaen further explains, “We could find and design therapy that could prevent NEC so, babies would no longer need to suffer from this disease.”

Just five days after birth, Sam had two inches of his intestine removed. After 151 days in the NICU, he was finally well enough to go home. Now, he keeps his big brother Jack on the run.

“It just blows my mind. He has met all of his milestones, developmentally. He's super social, a loving, fun, stubborn two-year-old,” Maureen expresses about her son.

Doctors hope these new insights will open the door to developing novel, new treatments that could promote healthy intestine development in premature babies.

If this story has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Shelby Kluver at shelby.kluver@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.


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