When a baby dies of sudden infant death syndrome, it's tragic for the family, and even the doctors who can't explain why. Texas Children's Hospital Dr. Barbara West has worked with many families who have lost a baby to SIDS.
"If this could ever lead to some way to identify ahead of time babies with a special increased risk that would be enormous," Dr. West said.
And today, Houston researchers are one step closer to predicting which baby might die of SIDS. Dr. Huda Zoghbi and a team of Baylor and Texas Children's researchers have discovered that babies who die of SIDS may be missing brain cells carrying genes that remind newborns to breathe.
"This gene is important to migrate and take the right place in the brain stem so they can make connections in the right place to generate breathing rhythm. If they don't make that connection, that generator is not working well so babies don't take a breath," Dr. Zoghbi said.
Their discovery, featured in "Neuron," a prestigious medical journal, could help predict newborns at risk.
Researchers are hoping that someday they'll be able to test every baby to see if they're at risk for SIDS, and those families will know to be extra vigilant in the first six months of life.
Dr. Zoghbi says they have much work to do but when they are certain they've found the major genes that lead to SIDS, she says making a test for newborns will be easy.
"Once you find the gene and you think this gene is really important for a function, it's really easy to get DNA and do a blood test," she said.
Developing a blood test to predict SIDS was unimaginable just a decade ago.
For now, doctors still recommend that babies sleep on their back until they're one year old.