Artificial womb-like environment helps premature lambs mature for 4 weeks

The womb-like device uses a temperature-controlled sac filled with synthetic amniotic fluid.

In this photo provided by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr. Alan Flake a fetal surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who is leading the research to develop a fluid-filled incubation system that mimics a mother's womb, to help extremely premature infants.

But researchers have shown it's possible to nurture and protect lambs in late stages of gestation inside an artificial womb; technology which could become a lifesaver for many premature human babies in just a few years.

The researchers created a fluid-filled transparent container to simulate how foetuses float in amniotic fluid inside the mother's uterus, and attached it to a mechanical placenta that keeps blood oxygenated.

Their hearts were pumping blood through their umbilical cord into a gas machine outside the bag and electronic monitors measured their vital signs, blood flow and other crucial functions. Flake noted that the artificial womb is not intended for fetuses younger than 22 weeks, as it's not a method for artificially growing embryos.

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Experts who have carried out the experiment at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia hope that this success may provide a better chance of survival to premature human babies in a few years.

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.

The lambs grew wool, became more active, and had normal growth, neurological function, and organ maturation, as reported in Nature Communications.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have been working on an artificial womb called the "BioBag", which, admittedly, is a awful name for a potentially awesome product.

Ultimately, an infant is considered premature when they are born before 37 weeks of development.

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[T] he point of developing an external womb - which [researchers] calls the Biobag - is to give infants born months too early a more natural, uterus-like environment to continue developing in, Flake says.

Lambs were used due to their close genetic proximity to humans. If successful, not only will it save the lives of thousands of babies, it would also help cut down on the estimated $43 billion annual medical costs of prematurity in the U.S.

Dena Davis, a bioethicist at Lehigh University, doesn't like the idea of using the artificial wombs on humans at all.

The team tested five lambs whose biological age was equivalent to 23-week human fetuses and also tested three more lambs that were a little older.

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. After a series of prototypes, it emerged as a solution for premature animal babies. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants", Flake said in a statement.

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