A comparison of surfactant as immediate prophylaxis and as rescue therapy in newborns of less than 30 weeks' gestation

N Engl J Med. 1991 Mar 28;324(13):865-71. doi: 10.1056/NEJM199103283241301.


Background: Exogenous pulmonary surfactants are administered into the trachea either to prevent respiratory distress syndrome in premature infants or to treat it. In a randomized, multicenter trial, we compared the results of surfactant therapy initiated as prophylaxis with the results of rescue therapy with surfactant.

Methods: Before birth, 479 infants with an estimated gestational age of less than 30 weeks were randomly assigned to receive surfactant as prophylaxis (n = 235) or rescue therapy (n = 244). The infants in the prophylaxis group received a 90-mg intratracheal dose of an exogenous calf-lung surfactant extract at the time of delivery, whereas the infants in the rescue-therapy group received 90 mg of the surfactant several hours after delivery if the fractional inspiratory oxygen concentration was at least 0.40 or if the mean airway pressure was at least 0.686 kPa (7 cm of water), or both. Infants in both groups received additional doses of surfactant at intervals of 12 to 24 hours if these criteria were met.

Results: The proportion of infants surviving until discharge to their homes was significantly higher in the prophylaxis group than in the rescue-therapy group (88 vs. 80 percent, P = 0.028). This difference was due primarily to the longer survival of very premature infants (less than or equal to 26 weeks' gestation) in the prophylaxis group than in the rescue-therapy group (75 vs. 54 percent, P = 0.006). According to proportional-hazards regression analysis, the distribution of survival times was better for all infants in the prophylaxis group (P = 0.007) and for the subgroup of infants in the prophylaxis group who were delivered at 26 weeks' gestation or earlier (P = 0.0048). Infants in the prophylaxis group who were delivered at 26 weeks' gestation or earlier had a lower incidence of pneumothorax than similar infants in the rescue-therapy group (7 vs. 18 percent, P = 0.03).

Conclusions: We found a significant advantage to the administration of the initial dose of surfactant as prophylaxis rather than as rescue therapy in very premature infants.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Comparative Study
  • Multicenter Study
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Protocols
  • Emergencies
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care
  • Oxygen Inhalation Therapy
  • Pneumothorax / etiology
  • Pneumothorax / therapy
  • Proportional Hazards Models
  • Pulmonary Surfactants / administration & dosage
  • Pulmonary Surfactants / therapeutic use*
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Newborn / mortality
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Newborn / prevention & control*
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome, Newborn / therapy
  • Resuscitation


  • Pulmonary Surfactants