Spring 2019

Breathe easier


Babies born prematurely often don’t produce enough of a substance that coats their lungs, keeps their airways supple, and prevents collapse. This puts them at risk for a life-threatening condition called respiratory distress syndrome (RDS). Treatment with a lung surfactant derived from animals enables most to survive. But the substance is costly to produce, and there have been problems with consistency and quality. 

Second-year graduate student Clara Ciutara is part of a team in the U’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science that’s trying to find the right mix of proteins and lipids to create a synthetic surfactant. 

Ciutara learned about the project from her advisor, Professor Joseph Zasadzinski. “I got interested in lung surfactant because of the possible implications,” she says. Respiratory distress syndrome affects approximately 10 percent of premature babies in the United States. Acute RDS affects adults and has a 40 percent mortality rate.

A recipient of the First-Year Graduate Student Fellowship, Nancy Scott and Kevin Gromley Fellowship, and Robert V. Mattern Fellowship, Ciutara is grateful for the support she’s received. “It has allowed me to focus on studying rather than worry about tuition,” she says. 

She’s hoping her research will yield knowledge that will help affected babies and adults take their next breaths.