Treating a birth defect with Viagra

October 21, 2010 3:06:25 PM PDT
It's a birth defect as common as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy, yet few people have ever heard about it.

Nearly half of the babies with this defect don't see their first birthdays, but now, a drug millions of men are already very familiar with is saving little lives.

Baby Daniel may still be hooked up to tubes and machines, but to his mother, he looks perfect. Not long ago, she thought she was going to lose him.

"He couldn't breathe, and everything was shutting down," Amber Dotson said.

Daniel was born with a life-threatening problem called C-D-H -- congenital diaphragmatic hernia.

"The intestines go up into the chest, and that compresses on the developing lungs and pushes the heart over to the side and causes the lungs to be abnormally developed," said Brad Warner, MD Pediatric Surgeon at St. Louis Children's Hospital/Washington University School of Medicine.

Before, babies with the defect were rushed into surgery. But now, doctors realize that does more harm than good, so they're finding less invasive and more unique ways to help.

"One of the ones that's really come along is actually Viagra. Viagra causes relaxation of muscle in different parts of the body, and one of those is the smooth muscle of the lungs," Warner said.

In some babies, the little blue pill in liquid form helps improve blood flow to the lungs.

So does a new type of ventilation strategy called gentle ventilation.

"Basically, the ventilator is like jiggling the baby, and every jiggle is a breath," Warner said.

Benjamin was also born with C-D-H. A combination of Viagra and other meds made him strong enough to leave the intensive care unit.

"He's off the oxygen. He's down to one medication a day. He's pretty much our miracle," Kelly Hubble said.

Babies who now have the chance to grow-up thanks to treatment with a softer approach.

C-D-H is usually diagnosed on a prenatal ultrasound. The overall survival for C-D-H is 55 to 65 percent. The hope is that new treatment protocols and increased awareness can improve the survival rate in the future.