Pregnant women who are in danger of giving birth too early are often treated with medications that help the baby’s lungs mature faster. These medications can reduce the newborn’s risk of a dangerous breathing difficulty called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). However, the medicines seem to help babies of certain races and ethnicities more than others, even when other factors, such as birth weight, are taken into account.
Researchers suspected that this difference may be caused by genetics. To learn more, researchers supported by the Obstetric and Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics Branch analyzed DNA samples and medical records from 117 mother-infant pairs in which the mother was treated with a specific anti-inflammatory medication before giving birth prematurely. In about one-half of the cases, the infants developed RDS.
The scientists found that several specific variants in genes involved in the breakdown of the medication were also associated with the preterm newborns’ risk of RDS. Some of the risk variants were in the mother, and others were in the fetus, meaning that the ways both the mother and the placenta break down the drug can affect how much of the drug reaches the developing fetus.
The researchers are using this information to design a larger, more powerful study that will let them control for other factors that might be influencing the results and get a more accurate picture of the effects of these gene variants on infant health. This work could lead to the development of more personalized treatments (PMID: 22445700).