Page last updated at 12:27 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 13:27 UK

First baby given xenon gas to prevent brain injury


Riley Joyce's parents agreed to the experimental treatment

A newborn baby has become the first in the world to receive xenon gas treatment, pioneered in Bristol in a bid to prevent brain injury.

Riley Joyce had no pulse and was not breathing when he was first delivered by emergency Caesarean section at the Royal United Hospital, Bath.

He had a 50:50 chance of permanent brain injury and was transferred to St Michael's Hospital, Bristol.

His parents agreed to the experimental treatment and Riley is now doing well.

'Cooling babies'

Every year in the UK more than 1,000 otherwise healthy babies born at full term die or suffer brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen or blood supply at birth.

The xenon technique was developed by Marianne Thoreson, professor of neonatal neuroscience at the University of Bristol, and Dr John Dingley, consultant anaesthetist at Swansea University's School of Medicine.

Professor Thoreson said: "After seven days, Riley was alert, able to look at his mother's face, hold up his head and begin to take milk."

We faced the challenge of how to safely and effectively deliver this rare and extremely expensive gas to newborn babies.
Professor Marianne Thoreson

The professor has pioneered new treatments at the hospital since 1998 when she began cooling babies to reduce damage in the newborn brain.

However, cooling only partly reduces disability and does not prevent it in all babies.

She said: "Over the past eight years, we have shown in the laboratory that xenon doubles the protective effect of cooling on the brain.

"However we faced the challenge of how to safely and effectively deliver this rare and extremely expensive gas to newborn babies."

Dr Dingley, who invented a machine to deliver the gas, said: "A key design feature of this machine is that it is very efficient, using less than 200ml of xenon per hour - less than the volume of a soft drinks can.

"Xenon is a precious and finite resource and difficult to extract so it can cost up to £30 a litre.

We are extremely grateful that we were given this opportunity
Dave and Sarah Joyce, Riley's parents

"As ventilated newborns breathe many litres of air per minute, any xenon-based treatment would be impossibly expensive without an economical delivery method."

The device is now authorised for clinical trials and will be used on a minimum of 12 babies over the coming months in a feasibility trial before it can be used on a larger scale.

Twelve-day-old Riley's parents, Dave and Sarah Joyce, said: "We are delighted that Riley is doing so well and we are extremely grateful that we were given this opportunity.

"Marianne was so passionate about the treatment and we truly believe that she had and still has the best interests of Riley in mind.

"It was traumatic to see our baby not breathing, but seeing the ambulance coming to collect Riley to take him to Bristol gave us hope that something could be done to help him."

The study is being funded by Sparks, the children's medical research charity, which has committed almost £800,000 to the team's work.

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