I don’t think you can be a Neonatal blogger without writing about the patent ductus arteriosus from time to time. It’s been a little while so when something floats past my desk that I find interesting I share it with you. When that article is Canadian and written by someone I collaborate with on the Canadian Pediatric Society Fetus and Newborn Committee I am even more apt to do so. In the last few years the idea of letting nature take its course with respect to the PDA has been growing. The evidence is lacking that treatment for most infants in the first two weeks of life makes a difference to important pulmonary outcomes ie. BPD. There is a growing movement asking whether treatment at all really makes a difference to these infants or whether we should just be managing the medical complications of increased pulmonary bloodflow with diastolic steal from the kidneys and intestine. The alternative of course is to treat these infants most commonly with NSAIDs and hope that side effects such as renal impairment and spontaneous intestinal perforation don’t happen. Full disclosure, I was raised to find the PDA and if hemodynamically significant treat it, so that has been my general approach. I am open to suggestion though so without further adieu let’s talk about a recent Quebec study on the topic.
University of McGill in Montreal
Anchored by Dr. Altit with the lead author being De Carvalho Nunes the experience at this hospital was recently published as Natural evolution of the patent ductus arteriosus in the extremely premature newborn and respiratory outcomes. The authors looked a specific population of infants born at <29 weeks gestational age (214 infants in total) and importantly had a reasonable number of small infants >26 weeks at birth (84) to see what happened to their PDAs in the long run. Many years ago the unit adopted a non-intervention policy with respect to treatment of PDAs and since 2015 were in a new hospital. This afforded them the opportunity to look retrospectively at a modern cohort of infants all cared for in the same environment from Feb 2015 – Sept 2019 and see what happened to respiratory morbidity over time. While this was retrospective and lacks a control group the concept here was that one could look at the rate of BPD over time and see if it was static, rising or falling and in turn you could also compare to the Canadian Neonatal Network (not done in this study) to see if your approach was leading to all sorts of morbidity.
What did they find?
The authors chose to standardize the definition of BPD:
Grade I (nasal flow cannula <1 L/min with FiO2 ≤ 70%; nasal cannula with flow of 1 to 3 L/min and FiO2 between 22 and 29%; CPAP, noninvasive positive pressure ventilation [NIPPV] or nasal cannula with flow >3 L/min with FiO2 of 21%),
Grade II (nasal flow cannula <1 L/min with FiO2 > 70%; nasal cannula with flow of 1 to 3 L/min and FiO2 ≥ 30%; CPAP, NIPPV or nasal cannula with flow >3 L/min with FiO2 between 22 and 29%; invasive mechanical ventilation [IMV] with FiO2 of 21%)
Grade III (NIMV, NIPPV or nasal cannula with flow >3 L/min with FiO2 ≥ 30%, IMV with FiO2 > 21%).
Looking at the respiratory outcomes a total of 77% had BPD under 26 weeks of varying severity compared to 40% in the larger infants. Other morbidities were not different.
Interestingly the authors also noted a decline in Grade 2 BPD over the 5 year study.
Thoughts on the results
It’s important to look at the overall results from the Canadian Neonatal Network to see how this group compares to the rest of the country. What follows is not perfect but its a start for a discussion.
One thing that I note though is that the rate of postnatal steroid use in this group was 75% under 26 weeks and 22% for those from 26-28 weeks. This represents a large increase over the mean in the CNN back in 2019 of 11.9% for postnatal steroid use. The babies under 26 weeks were also ventilated invasively for a median of 29 days. That seems a little long to me but there are no comparisons with the CNN to know for sure.
I can’t help but wonder if you are trading short term pain for long term gain. It’s hard to argue with the long term results in terms of a shift towards better rates of lower grade BPD. I do wonder though if the eventual closure of the PDA is being helped along with use of more postnatal dexamethasone. There is some data suggesting increased rates of closure with use of dexamethasone so maybe what is going on here is that rather than using NSAIDs there is a shift to long durations of ventilation and increased rates of dexamethasone use. Something for the authors to look at though.
With everything there are trade offs so maybe less NSAID use means longer ventilation and more postnatal steroids but in the end the pulmonary outcome is better? I see a prospective RCT coming to eventually settle this debate!
I have written a lot over the years on the topic of BPD. It isn’t by chance as it is a condition that Neonatologists have put a lot of weight on. In many ways it is a benchmark that is often the go to condition when comparing one unit to another. When two Neonatologists get together their first question isn’t what’s your rate of ROP or severe developmental delay but more often comparing rates of BPD. We like to compare this as a metric as it’s something we can see as compared to say rates of late onset sepsis. You can see a patient on a ventilator or on CPAP at 36 weeks but you can’t see bacteria coursing through veins.
Not all BPD is the same though. in 2000 the NIH produced a new consensus definition of BPD as shown below.
What stands out for the babies <32 weeks is how severe BPD is defined. Babies who are ventilated are classified in the same severity group as those who are on CPAP. Somehow that doesn’t seem quite right intuitively but alas that is what they decided at the time.
Type 1 sBPD: patients on nasal cannula or noninvasive positive pressure support (i.e., high flow nasal cannula (HFNC), nasal continuous positive airway pressure (nCPAP), noninvasive intermittent positive pressure ventilation (nIPPV)) Type 2 sBPD: infants receiving iMV
The authors then looked at a sample of 564 patients from 2015-2019 in the BPD collaborative registry and subdivided them into 429 (76%) Type 1 vs 135 (24%) Type 2 sBPD and compared outcomes between the two. The differences between the two types of BPD are quite significant and shown in Table I. Babies who went on to develop sBPD as Type 2 were younger and smaller than those with Type 1. Medication use within the NICU and after discharge was markedly different as were the total ventilator days which is likely not surprising since by definition they were still intubated at 36 weeks. Importantly if you were still intubated at 36 weeks PMA almost one quarter of the patients went on to receive a tracheostomy.
Looking at it another way using relative risks the signifance of having Type 2 sBPD is impactful.
Taking Meaning From This
You might be quick to say, Michael this is absolutely no surprise. On the other hand if you have read this blog for some time you may remember this piece The New BPD That Matters. This study looked at what gestational age really mattered when looking at long term pulmonary outcomes in a Canadian cohort. When you take all comers it was 40 weeks and not 36 weeks that really mattered. The likely differernce here though is that by selecting out only the severe patients in this current study it is indeed the 36 week mark that still has relevance. I actually think the two papers together are not contradictory but rather additive.
What I think one takes away from the current study is that failure to extubate by 36 weeks does in fact carry with it significant long term risk to the patient. It would be easy enough to say that these babies should be extubated but as you see from table I it isn’t that they didn’t try. From a medication standpoint it would appear that they ” threw the kitchen sink” at these babies. The only thing I find a little surprising is that only 47% of babies in the collaborative with type 2 sBPD received systemic steroids. If they were that sick I would have expected it to be higher although that also may just be a reflection of my own practice.
One thing that I think will be a hot topic moving forward is the use of higher levels of CPAP than what many units are accustomed to. This has also been recently discussed in High CPAP vs NIPPV. Is there a winner? There may be a reluctance by some units to use CPAP levels in the +9-12 cm H2O range but when looking at these downstream complications for patients who remain ventilated at 36 weeks I think people need to seriously consider their biases and whether they are based on science or what they were taught. I can’t help but think of the oft used expression absence of evidence is not evidence of absence and think that if we can all be a little humble who knows what we may discover that can help this population.
If there is a country that leads this site in terms of mentions it has to be Sweden. This isn’t just because I happen to know some Neonatologists from there who are fine people but because of the fantastic research that spills forth from their national registry of births. Surfactant is one of the oldest treatments we have in Neonatology and we know that in babies with RDS giving it early within 2 hours has benefits such as reduction in pneumothorax. The reality though is that as we have become familiar with the therapy its use has spilled over to other conditions. Years ago use of surfactant in meconium aspiration syndrome was shown to reduce need for ECMO. It has also been shown to imrove clinical condition in babies with pneumonia. Interestingly as a fellow I was criticised one call night for wanting to give a three day old baby with a history of RDS and high FiO2 requirements a repeat dose of surfactant. That was in 2001 and at that time no one could believe I was suggesting such an odd thing to give a dose after 48 hours yet now this is commonplace. Again as we have become more comfortable with surfactant such “off label” use spreads. I am not being critical of my colleagues back in 2001 as that was what the “conventional wisdom” was with respect to surfactant but that was then and this is now.
Looking at their registry data for 97377 infants born from 2009-2018 they found 7980 surfactant administrations to 5209 infants. The reasons for surfactant administration are shown in the table 1 below from the paper. Clearly and not surprisingly the bulk of surfactant administration is for RDS especially as gestational age declines. Given that so few preterm infants will pass meconium in-utero it also is understandable why MAS clusters in the more mature babies.
When it comes to multiple surfactant administrations they found 59.2% received 1 administration, 25.8% received 2, 7.3% had 3, and 2.8% had 4 or more administrations. Not surprisingly the more immature infants were more likely to receive multiple administrations. I have to say at this point that I feel vindicated with that suggestion for late surfactant administration all those years ago as these extra doses would have been given up to days after the first dosing.
Now Here Comes The Interesting Part
Much like previous work before this study, delivery of surfactant within the first 2 hours of age was associated with a reduction in very important outcomes of pneumothorax, IVH and need for ventilation beyond 7 days.. In short, improving compliance has a lot of benefits! The surprise was the in-hospital survival which favoured giving surfactant late. Put another way, if you receive surfactant in the first two hours you are more likely to die in hospital.
How can that possibly be if provision of surfactant has all those benefits outlined in table 3? More on that in a bit.
The next table addresses another question which is what if you don’t get surfactant at all? Interestinly the in-hospital survival is better for that group as well. On the other hand no difference exists for pneumothorax or IVH and ventilation beyong 7 days is improved with no surfactant at all!
The Difference Between Association and Causation
Ultimately that is what I think is at play here. You could look at the information quickly and conclude that giving surfactant late or not at all improves your chances of survival! Maybe aggressive use of surfactant isn’t such a good thing after all. I think you would be wrong there though based on prospective randomized trials. What is happening here is that the baseline characteristics are not likely equal and you are really looking at three different groups of patients.
Group 1 – These are the ones who get surfactant early within 2 hours of life. My suspicion is that the number of babies in this group that are really sick who may also have other comorbid issues is higher. There might be some babies with servere IUGR, pulmonary hypoplasia, meconium aspiration or pleural effusions that made the resuscitating team so nervous that they in advance of delivery had surfactant thawing and ready to go. Yes overall this group might benefit from better compliance and have less pneumothoraces for example but their comorbid conditions put them at higher risk of death.
Group 2 – Surfactant given after 2 hours of age. These are likely babies who are not as sick as group 1. Maybe they are babies initially managed with CPAP or NIPPV who due to escalating FiO2 requirements get surfactant. Much less likely to die.
Group 3 – No surfactant needed at all. The reason there might not be a difference in the major morbidities is that while they have RDS, TTN or MAS they are mild in nature. Clearly very low risk of death here and for that matter complications.
It might have been helpful to have some meaures of acuity documented such as SNAPPE-II (Score for Neonatal Acute Physiology with Perinatal Extension-II) used as it would help us in figuring out such differences.
Overall I think the message remains the same. Give surfactant early for those with significant lung disease. What I think it adds is an awareness that repeat dosing even if off-label is being done in Neonatology. The next question will be whether this repeat dosing makes the babies better or just us!
As readers of this blog will know I am a big fan of anything that challenges my practice. It’s something that I think in general is a good practice to live by. For many years now when a preterm infant in particular is hypotensive it has been our practice to draw a serum cortisol level and then determine whether the stress response is adequate before starting hydrocortisone for blood pressure support. Having said that, sometimes we start the hydrocortisone and then use the level afterwards to determine if we need to continue. is this approach right though?
Evidence That Shakes Up Our Approach
It turns out the evidence that preterm infants may not be able to produce a robust cortisol response after birth has been around for sometime. In 1994 Hingre et al published Adrenal steroidogenesis in very low birth weight preterm infants. In this paper they documented the diminished ability of infants born < 30 weeks gestational age to produce cortisol finding preterm newborns had low basal cortisol levels “(mean +/- SEM, 207.4 +/- 23.5 nmol/L), and their levels were similar to basal levels reported for healthy full-term newborns (170.7 +/- 26.8 nmol/L; P = 0.31”. It is worth noting here that commonly held beliefs have been that an adequate adrenal response is in the range of 400 – 450 nmol/L or about 15 microgram/dL and these levels are lower than that. Moreover, when the authors measaured precursors of cortisol and found elevations consistent with a deficiency of decreased activity of 11 beta-hydroxylase (11 beta OH). Knowing this then, the use of a baseline cortisol to determine if an appropriate stress response is present before starting hydrocortisone is questionable. Having said that the practice has been that when it is low we assist with hydrocortisone and when it is high we can ease off the support. A new study that has just come out though I think may turn that thinking on its head!
High Cortisol Levels Are Concerning. Not the Lows!
Absence of relationship between serum cortisol and critical illness in premature infants by Prelipcean I et al was just published and looked at 224 infants at the University of Florida who were born under 30 weeks and had baseline cortisol levels drawn for clinical indications prior to 36 weeks PMA. Like many centres the baseline cortisol was done prior to starting hydrocortisone for hypotension. A baseline level under 15 mcg/dL was considered low which equates to about 413 nmol/L for those using those units (like my own hospital). The Simplified Score for Neonatal Acute Physiology II SNAP-II score , neonatal Sequential Organ Failure Assessment (nSOFA) and Vasoactive-Inotrope Score (VIS) were calculated and used as measures of illness severity against the the cortisol levels obtained in a retrospective fashion. Cortisol levels were taken at a median of 3.8 days with an IQR of 1.2 to 14 days). Hydrocortisone was givne to 71% of patients in the study as well.
What emerged from these results might be counterintuitive. From the figure below it was found that those infants with higher baseline cortisol levels were less likely to survive. This result just reached statistical significance. Thinking about this for a moment, we have traditionally worried about the infants with low cortisol and rushed to supplement them. The babies at real risk though here are the ones with a robust pituitary adrenal axis response. Notably another factor that leads to lower cortisol levels in the first few days of life is provision of antenatal steroids so it may be at least in part that the higher baseline levels might be seen in those without the benefit of antenatal steroids and therefore are at higher risk of adverse outcome. Bottom line though, a robust cortisol level would not necessarily appear to be marker of a good thing.
The second thing to be identified is the scatter of results for these infants across birth weight, day of life and gestational age. The authors discovered using a multivariable model that birth weight was the only statistically significant variable to explain cortisol variation. Interestingly for every 100g increase in birth weight cortisol increased an average of 10%.
Additionally, differences in average cortisol level were affected by chorioamnionitis and antenatal steroids. The presence of chorioamnionitis as a variable is not surprising I suppose given the results from the prophylactic steroid trials for BPD that have consistently found chorio predicts a higher rate of BPD.
Where things get really interesting is in the bottom half of the figure below. While weak linear associations with SNAP-II, nSOFA were found ,no correlation between serum cortisol concentration and concurrent critical illness severity objectively measured by SNAP-II and nSOFA scores at time points beyond the first day of life and prior to 36 weeks PMA in these infants were found. Most intriguing was the complete lack of relationship between the VIS and cortisol levels.
This presents a predicament about what to do with these levels. Based on this research the degree of illness and the amount of inotrope one is on (VIS takes into account doses of dopamine, dobutamine, vasopressin, milrinone, epinephrine and norepinephrine) has no relationship to cortisol level. If you are like our centre though you have been considering whether to use hydrocortisone based on the level of cortisol at baseline. Based on this research the message would be that if one wants to know a baseline cortisol it might be useful as a tool to determine how concerned one should be with an infant as risk of mortality is higher if baseline levels are above 413 nmol/L. In terms of determining whether one should support with hydrocortisone though in the face of a sick preterm infant and more specifically a hypotensive one the utility of the baseline measurement I would question. Adding to this the research from 1994 and one has to question if the level is low is that simply because the infant doesn’t have the metabolic machinery yet to produce enough rather than has an abnormal response to stress.
Some qualifiers as with any study like this need to be acknowledged. It is not a study of 1000 patients so the individual numbers of patients at different weight levels will be lower and therefore there could be unusual patients here influencing the results. Having said that, when you combine this information in this study with what is known from before about these preterm infants should we be surprised that there is no relationship between baseline cortisol and illness. If you don’t have the capacity to make it except when exceptionally stressed it would appear that all these baseline cortisols may in fact be good for telling ourselves how stressed we should be about the patient.
Precision medicine is a growing field in which genetic factors, environment, metabolism and even lifestyle are taken into account when deciding who should receive a treatment or not. When it comes to bronchopulmonary dysplasia I believe anyone who works in Neonatal care can attest it is a mystery why some infants go on to develop BPD while others don’t. We do know that certain treatment strategies may increase risk such as using excessive volumes or pressure to ventilate and in the last 25 years the notion that your level of cortisol in the blood may make a difference as well. I have written about prophylactic hydrocortisone use before in Hydrocortisone after birth may benefit the smallest preemies the most! When looking at the literature thus far and taking into account the results of the individual patient meta-analysis the following table can be generated highlighting a summary of benefits.
A baby’s initial cortisol level may be the answer
The PREMILOC study was a double-blond multicentred trial of 523 infants randomly assigned to either prophylactic hydrocortisone in the first 24 hours of life or placebo. All infants were under 28 weeks at birth and received 1 mg/kg/d of hydrocortisone 1 mg/kg/d for 7 days followed by 3 days of 0.5 mg/kg/d for three days. In a pre-planned study coming out of the PREMILOC study, researchers looked at the role of baseline cortisol in predicting response to treatment or risk of adverse outcomes.
What they found in examining baseline levels for both treatment and placebo groups was that a relationship exists between the baseline level and such outcomes.
From Table 4 they found a relationship between survival without BPD and a higher initial level of cortisol but found no such relationship in the treatment arm. The threshold of what was considered high was 880 nmol/L although the mean cortisol was in the 400-500 nmol/L range. in other words, if having adequate physiologic levels of cortisol is the goal and a baby already has that, giving more non-antiinflammatory dosing of hydrocortisone doesn’t yield benefit.
Similarly, when looking at side effects a positive correlation was found between higher baseline levels of cortisol and risk of grade III/IV IVH and spontaneous intestinal perforation. It would seem therefore that if a baby has the level of cortisol that they would normally have from a physiologic perspective they are no different than a placebo arm patient when given hydrocortisone as you bring them to where they need to be. When you double the dose however that they should have, side effects begin to rear their ugly head.
How can you use this information?
From personal conversations I know that many centres are struggling with what to do about giving hydrocortisone. On the one hand there isn’t much benefit (if at all) for BPD in the 24 and 25 week infants but they do better from a neurodevelopmental standpoint. On the other hand there is a benefit in the 26 and 27 week infants but you may predispose them to side effects as well.
This is where precision medicine comes in. One option for centers unsure of who to provide this to (if at all) could be to use a threshold of 880 nmol/L and if the initial level is above this you would not treat but if below offer treatment. This level while found in the study to be predictive of side effects in particular if high does seem very high to me. I would think most babies would qualify which is not necessarily a bad thing but in our center we have typically used levels above 400 or 500 as an adequate stress response. Regardless of the level picked one would be using physiologic data to determine who to give hydrocortisone to as a way to try and maximize benefit and minimize harm for the individual patient.
Make no mistake. Regardless of whether you decide to try this for your patients I don’t believe this is a magic bullet. The best chances for our patients come from having bundles of evidence based based practices and applying them to the patient population if we hope to reduce BPD and minimize risk from any side effects of our treatments. The question is whether prophylactic hydrocortisone should be part of this bundle.