Artificial Wombs are Being Designed to Help Premature Babies

Lambs are often used in experiments for prenatal treatment, due to the similarities with human lung development. After four weeks, they were put onto a regular ventilator, where researchers observed almost ideal health conditions. Complications along the way included issues with sepsis, lambs not surviving delivery and poor oxygenation.

And the team's efforts were successful, with the lambs showing normal circulation, blood pressure, metabolic processing, growth, lung development and brain development after four weeks inside the artificial womb.

"It's hard to describe actually how uniquely awe-inspiring it is to see", CHOP research fellow Dr. Emily Partridge told the Associated Press. The fluid is made of water and salts, just like in a real womb, and the bag is sealed to protect the foetus from infection.

It could take up to another 10 years, but by then he hopes to have a licensed device in which babies born very prematurely are given the chance to develop in fluid-filled chambers, rather than lying in incubators being artificially ventilated.

Based on the study, the key to making premature babies survive is to treat them like fetuses inside the womb and extend the gestation period, contrary to caring for them in an incubator. The researchers emphasized that future artificial wombs for humans could only sustain babies born after 23 weeks in the womb.

But Dr Flake said there was no technology "even on the horizon" that could replace a mother's womb at the earliest stages of foetal development.

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Pro-life campaigners are now calling for a review of the 24-week abortion limit, citing the increasing likelihood that a baby born before the abortion limit could be viable.

Flake and colleagues report on preclinical studies of their extra-uterine support device today in Nature Communications. But for infants born around 22 or 23 weeks - the earliest a premature child can be expected to survive outside the womb - the new device presents a better solution than the incubators now in use in neonatal wards. This is to provide the proper nutrition to the premature baby.

"I think it's realistic to think about three years for first-in-human trials", Alan Flake, fetal surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a news release.

The researchers took eight lambs between 105 to 120 days gestation (the physiological equivalent of 23 to 24 weeks in humans) and placed them inside the artificial womb.

"If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", Flake said. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants", Flake said in a statement.

Doctors say there's a desperate need for a bridge between the womb and the outside world. The device consists of three essential components: a polyethylene film that acts like the womb protecting the infant from the outside environment; an electrolyte solution which is similar to the amniotic fluid in the womb; and a system to circulate blood and supply oxygen.

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