Sarah and Dave Joyce with their newborn baby son Riley, who became the first baby born in the world with the help of Xenon gas.
A British hospital has become the first in the world to give xenon gas to a stricken newborn baby to prevent it suffering brain injury. Riley Joyce was given the inert gas, xenon, to breathe when he was born suffering from the effects of a lack of oxygen.
Without it there was a 50:50 chance he would suffer permanent injuries to the brain which could result in disabilities such as cerebral palsy.
The gas blocks processes in the brain that can lead to the death of nerve cells which in turn causes brain damage.
The treatment was administered at St Michael’s Hospital, Bristol, where a team of specialists have been pioneering ways of preventing brain injuries in babies who have been starved of oxygen at birth due to complications.
The team first started cooling babies in 1998 and early studies have suggested that xenon gas could boost the effects of cooling and protect the brain even further.
The gas has been used in adults having heart bypass surgery but it had never been attempted in a new born before.
Prof Marianne Thoresen and her colleague Dr James Tooley stabilised Riley at 33.5 degrees Celsius, before Riley’s breathing machine was connected to the xenon delivery system for three hours.
Riley was kept cool for 72 hours, then slowly rewarmed and was able to breathe without the machine on day five.
Prof Thoresen said: “After seven days, Riley was alert, able to look at his mother’s face, hold up his head and begin to take milk.”
Riley was delivered at the Royal United Hospital, Bath in a critical condition, with no pulse and needed to be resuscitated. He was transferred to Bristol after his brain waves gave abnormal readings.
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. We would like to thank all the team at St Michael’s Hospital for everything they have done for us.”
In the UK, every year, more than 1,000 otherwise healthy babies born at full term die or suffer brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen and or blood supply at birth. This can lead to lifelong problems such as cerebral palsy.
Professor Marianne Thoresen said: “Xenon is a very rare and chemically inert anaesthetic gas found in tiny quantities in the air that we breathe. In 2002 John Dingley and I realised the potential xenon and cooling might have in combination to further reduce disability.
“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 has been developing equipment in Swansea for xenon anaesthesia in adults for more than 10 years and has invented a machine to successfully deliver the gas to babies.
His creation takes the exhaled gas, removes any waste products from it and recirculates it to be breathed again without any loss at all to the outside air.
Dr Dingley, 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 per litre.”
He continued: “Despite these challenges, the lack of side-effects and brain protecting properties of xenon make it uniquely attractive as a potential treatment to apply alongside cooling in these babies.”
The device is now authorised for clinical trials and will be used on at least 12 babies over the coming months.
Professor Thoresen and Dr Dingley’s previously successful research work into cooling and the increased survival chances offered by xenon have been funded through the children’s medical research charity Sparks, which has committed almost £800,000 to the team’s pioneering work.
Sparks, a children’s medical research charity, has committed almost £1.5m to cooling research in recent years, including the “CoolCap” now being widely used in the NHS.