MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A chemical engineer in California has an invention that could help people with damaged lungs. She hopes it could help them breathe more easily. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has the story.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: There's a chemical in our lungs called surfactant. It coats the tiny air sacs in the lung. Without it, every breath would be a struggle, like blowing up millions of little balloons. With surfactant, breathing is as easy as blowing soap bubbles. Premature infants haven't yet started making surfactant in their immature lungs. Stanford University pulmonologist Angela Rogers says a surfactant harvested from animal lungs has been used successfully to treat these preemies.
ANGELA ROGERS: Hundreds of thousands of people are alive in our country today because of the widespread use of surfactant.
PALCA: Rogers says that success made doctors wonder if surfactant use could be expanded.
ROGERS: There was a lot of interest in my field to try surfactant in adults that have acute respiratory distress syndrome.
PALCA: A condition where the lungs stop making surfactant after an injury. Initial results weren't very promising, and surfactant was just too expensive to try using it for very long in adult lungs. Stanford University bioengineer Annelise Barron's work could change that. For more than 20 years, she's been trying to make a cheaper synthetic surfactant, and now she thinks she's succeeded. The surfactant our bodies make is made up of chemicals called peptides. The one Barron has invented is made up of peptoids.
ANNELISE BARRON: A peptoid is a completely synthetic, non-natural mimic of a peptide.
PALCA: After years of trying various peptoid combinations, Barron felt she had found one that behaved like the real surfactant. She and her colleagues have done some initial testing.
BARRON: We've found our surfactant works as well as animal surfactant.
PALCA: It will still be several years before her cheaper synthetic surfactant is ready to try on humans, but Barron says she's prepared to see the project through until the day that happens.
BARRON: If you want to take on a scientific problem that is very complex, it takes a long time and a lot of work.
PALCA: Barron's work on the synthetic surfactant is described in the journal Scientific Reports. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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