Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

An artificial womb has been tested on foetal lambs equivalent in age to 23-week-old human infants
An artificial womb has been tested on foetal lambs equivalent in age to 23-week-old human infants

03 May, 2017

By connecting the umbilical cord to a gas exchange that oxygenates the blood, the device function is similar to how a fetus "breathes" in the womb via the umbilical cord.

A groundbreaking study came out on April 25, announcing scientists have created an "artificial womb" in the hopes of someday using the device to save babies born extremely prematurely.

The device mimics the prenatal fluid-filled environment to give the tiniest newborns a precious few weeks to develop their lungs and other organs.

According to Flake within the next 10 years extremely premature infants would be able to continue to develop in chambers filled with amniotic fluid, as opposed to lying in incubators attached to ventilators.

The plastic device encases the foetus in artificial amniotic fluid, and circulates its blood through the umbilical cord into a filtering device externally, which simulates the activity of a mother's placenta.

In early-stage animal testing, extremely premature lambs grew, apparently normally, inside the system for three to four weeks, the team reported on Tuesday.

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The recent tests featured eight lamb fetuses that spent between 105 to 115 days inside their mothers' womb.

"This will require a lot of additional preclinical research and development and this treatment will not enter the clinic any time soon", Colin Duncan of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was not involved in the research told BBC News. Researchers hope one day the same technology could work for human babies. Researchers say no, it's complete science fiction to think an embryo's development could happen in the device.

"The challenging age we're trying to offset is that 23-week, 24-week baby who is faced with such a challenge of adapting to life outside of the uterus on dry land, breathing air when they're not supposed to be there yet", said Dr. Emily Partridge, CHOP researcher. Knowing this, we do not know any long term effects of being grown in an artificial womb but no doubt this will be something the researches will be taking into consideration.

This study wasn't created to replace a mother's natural womb, but the invention could one day help keep premature infants off ventilators and out of incubators when they are born. "It's basically an artificial womb".

"The most important period for developmental events is still entirely dependent on mother nature", Flake said. Despite the advanced health care facilities available in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a large number of these infants suffer from a number of health problems, wherein the parents have to decide between opting for extreme health care measures to keep these infants alive and a less painful care. Scientists plan to begin trials on human babies within three to five years.

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