Scientists use artificial womb to support premature lambs

Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia fetal physiologist Marcus G. Davey of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who helped design the artificial womb system

To show the potential of their system, the CHOP team worked with five premature lambs aged 105 to 111 days, as they are developmentally similar to a human fetus at 23 weeks, said Flake.

"They've managed to now keep some of these lambs alive for at least a month". The environment of each artificial womb allowed all of the lamb fetuses to survive and thrive. Though the parameters aren't same for the lamb and human, the success of their method for lambs presents a ray of hope for humans.

While inside the bags, the lambs opened their eyes, had normal breathing and swallowing movements and grew wool.

The approach might one day help nurture and protect premature babies outside the uterus, providing a better chance for survival and eliminating the health risk of pregnancy. The researchers emphasized that future artificial wombs for humans could only sustain babies born after 23 weeks in the womb.

"The whole idea is to support normal development; to re-create everything that the mother does in every way that we can to support normal fetal development and maturation", Flake underlined.

The system also does not require tubing be placed in the placenta and this minimizes umbilical spasms that can take place when the baby is born, Flake said.

That's where the "artificial womb" device comes in.

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.




For their study, the findings of which were published in Nature Communications Tuesday, the researchers trialled the technology on lambs delivered by caesarean section at a period of gestation equivalent to 23 or 24 weeks in a human.

"If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", Flake said.

Around 30,000 babies in the United States alone are born critically early - at between 23 and 26 weeks of gestation, the researchers told reporters in a telephone briefing.

Dr Alan Flake, director of the Center for Fetal Research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, US, said: "Our system could prevent the severe morbidity (illness) suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist".

The artificial womb study has been fast tracked by the US Food and Drug Administration and the researchers are now undertaking further animal trials, which they hope to complete within two years, "then move on to first in human use within three to four years", Dr Davey said.

With the Biobag, the baby is able to pump its own blood through its umbilical cord and into a medical device called an oxygenator, which functions like a placenta, sending oxygenated blood back to the baby.

"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist".

"This, in theory, should allow support of premature infants", he said, adding that his team's goal is to "meet the unmet need of extreme prematurity".

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