Premature infants frequently lack a complex lung compound called surfactant that aids in oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange between the blood and the air spaces. The consequence can be lung collapse and respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), which affects 40,000 U.S. infants annually and is the leading cause of infant disease and death in the United States. A number of studies have shown that administration of surfactant isolated from amniotic fluid or from adult lungs would be a better treatment of RDS than the current approach, mechanical ventilation.
But supplies of surfactant are extremely limited. Now scientists at California Biotechnology, Inc., in Palo Alto report they ahve reproduced the gene for human lung surfactant protein in cells in laboratory culture and have synthesized large quantities of the protein. They plan to mix it with lipids to produce an artificial lung surfactant that mimics the natural mixture of lipids and protein.
The scientists have also developed an assay using monoclonal antibodies to determine surfactant levels in amniotic fluid so as to accurately identify before birth infants at high risk for RDS. The company anticipates a $40 million annual market for diagnosis of RDS and treatment with artificial lung surfactant.