An Artificial Womb Has Birthed Lambs And Premature Babies Are Next

The womb itself, a sealed and sterile bag, is filled with an electrolyte solution which acts like amniotic fluid in the uterus.

"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world", said Alan Flake, MD, director of the Center for Fetal Research at CHOP.

The study on an extra-uterine system to physiologically support extremely premature lambs was published in Nature Communications this week.

The team tested and monitored the effects of the system on eight fetal lambs, which develop their prenatal lungs in a similar way to human beings. The fluid-filled support mechanism is the outcome of three years of research and innovation that first started with a series of four prototypes - beginning with a glass incubator tank and progressing to the current apparatus.

With the Biobag, the baby is able to pump its own blood through its umbilical cord and into a medical device called an oxygenator, which functions like a placenta, sending oxygenated blood back to the baby. This study is yet to be done on humans and the researchers hope for it to be successful, just like the outcome that the fetal lamb had. It's a little more than halfway through pregnancy, and it's at this age that the fetus has at least a fighting chance of surviving outside its mother's body.

Flake and team hope the technology could one day be used to treat tiny, premature human babies and help them to grow up healthy.

Fetal physiologist Marcus G. Davey of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, who helped design the artificial womb system is shown near giant tanks holding a liquid created to simulate amniotic fluid. Lambs developed inside them for up to 28 days.

"This, in theory, should allow support of premature infants", he said, adding that his team's goal is to "meet the unmet need of extreme prematurity". It's going to take time before the external womb can be used on humans.

But could the artificial womb also allow for the growth of babies from embryos in the future?

Whether you think it's a miracle or a controversy, saving the lives of premature babies with an alternative incubator is an idea worth exploring. The results indicated normal development of the fetus in every respect. Baby lambs developed to the age equivalent of 23-week-old human babies.

The earlier a baby is born, the higher its risk of death or serious disability.

According to Flake, his research team has already been in contact with the United States food and Drug Administration and trials of the device could start sometime in the next three to five years.

He acknowledged that parents might question the approach, but notes that the preemies always could be whisked into standard care if they fared poorly in the new system. Most were euthanized so their organs could be examined, but the oldest, more than a year old, is alive and showing signs of normal development.

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