Hope for premies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

The womb that looks like a plastic zip-lock bag is actually a fluid-filled bag furnished with nutrient-rich blood supply, a protective sac of amniotic fluid and everything else required for a fetus to grow and mature.

"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world", Alan Flake, Specialist Surgeon, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

The team tested its extra-uterine device on eight preterm lambs which were physiologically equivalent to a 23- or 24-week-gestation human infant. He noted that the lamb being tested with the artificial womb had developed normally. 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.

The foetal lambs grew in a temperature-controlled, near- sterile environment, breathing amniotic fluid as they normally would do in the womb, their hearts pumping blood through their umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag.

The lambs remained in the "womb" for up to a month.

If successful, Dr Flake says they could be in use by humans in a decade; aside from the obvious medical benefits, he says it could also save the USA health system $4b a year in medical costs.

While the invention sounds more science fiction than reality, it could be taken to human trials with the hope of improving respiratory and neurological outcomes for extremely premature babies as soon as within three years, they say.


A handout photo released on April 25, 2017 by Nature Communications and made available by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia showing a lamb (left) at 107 days of gestation, on the 4th day of support inside a Biobag, and the same lamb on the 28th day of support, illustrating growth and maturation (right) in Philadelphia.

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. Instead, they're created to help preterm babies develop normally if their mother's can't carry them for a full pregnancy.

Can It Be Used On Humans? In it, you can see the premature lamb in the biobag, being artificially gestated.

"If our system is as successful as we think it can be, ultimately the majority of pregnancies predicted at-risk for extreme prematurity would be delivered onto a system that keeps them immersed, rather than being delivered onto a ventilator", he said.

Even if they do survive, Dr Flake says there's a 90 percent chance of morbidity from chronic lung disease or other complications from organ maturity. An extra-uterine system would be the ideal thing for such cases of premature babies. Extremely premature infants face a slew of health issues that came from having underdeveloped organs.

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. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants".

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