New research conducted on preterm primates at UT Southwestern Medical Center finds that estrogen may be a new postnatal therapy to improve lung function and other outcomes in preterm infants.
“Ironically, a hormone that has received great attention as a potential means to optimize the health of older women may be a beneficial treatment for humans during the earliest stages of life,” says senior author Philip Shaul, MD, professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern, in a news announcement about the findings.
Shaul and colleagues found that administering estrogen to premature primates resulted in a greater abundance of nitric oxide synthases in the lungs of the treated animals, resulting in markedly enhanced lung function and a significantly reduced need for ventilation support.
Additionally, estrogen caused the closure of the ductus arteriosus, a shunt that connects the pulmonary artery to the aorta during the primates’ fetal development to allow blood flow to bypass the fetus’ fluid-filled lungs. In the case of full-term infants, the ductus arteriosus normally closes at the time of birth once breathing is established. In premature infants, however, it frequently fails to close resulting in further impairment in lung and heart function.

Shaul says that future studies would need to evaluate other potential targets of estrogen in the lung in addition to nitric oxide synthases and possible effects of postnatal estrogen treatment on nonpulmonary development, including those related to the later reproductive health of the child.
The study was performed at the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research Primate Center in San Antonio as part of a National Institutes of Health-funded consortium investigating causes and treatments for bronchopulmonary dysplasia.

The study appears in the March issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.