Scientists Create Artificial Womb That Could Help Prematurely Born Babies

"If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", Flake said.

The watery incubation system is the first of its kind so closely mimics the conditions of the womb that it could give premature babies a much better chance at starting life.

A group of researchers from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have succeeded at keeping several premature lambs alive for several weeks by "bagging" them in artificial wombs similar to plastic bags.

The researchers created a fluid-filled container simulating the amniotic fluid in mom's uterus, and attached a mechanical placenta that keeps blood oxygenated.

In early animal testing, extremely premature lambs appeared to grow normally inside the Biobag for three to four weeks.

Now, however, a team at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has that has been tested on premature lambs and could be used for human babies within the next three years.

Most of these lambs had to be euthanized to gain more insight on the organ development during this gestational period.

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"We've actually been able to replicate the normal physiology of the fetus", said Flake.

In testing of the most recent prototype, the lambs were kept in the bags for up to four weeks.

One of the biggest risks for very young preemies is that their lungs aren't ready to breathe air, she explained.

Synthetic amniotic fluid enriched with nutrients flows in and out of the temperature-controlled, near-sterile "biobag".

An important part of this incubator, or extra-uterine support device, is the ability to sustain infants without using a ventilator, which can strain their underdeveloped lungs or cause scarring that leads to chronic lung disease. That's not saying that a premature baby will not be as intelligent as a baby born later, but a 2016 study found that full-term babies experience more brain growth during the third trimester (final 13 to 14 weeks of pregnancy) compared to premature infants, who are born before 37 weeks. They had also grown wool and could wiggle, open their eyes, and swallow.

So far the technology has only been tested on premature lambs, not human babies, so you won't find it at any hospitals just yet. The environment of each artificial womb allowed all of the lamb fetuses to survive and thrive. A group of scientists is hoping to bring the statistics much lower by developing an artificial womb. And while further adaptation of the device is needed before it can begin human testing, he envisioned parents being able to see the baby and even piping in the sound of the mother's heartbeat. The newest artificial womb is simpler than previous attempts developed by other researchers.


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