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

Toni Houston
April 28, 2017

The plastic device encases the foetus in artificial amniotic fluid, and circulates its blood through the umbilical cord into a filtering device externally, which simulates the activity of a mother's placenta. It's created to replicate the environment of the uterus and protect the baby from infection as an artificial umbilical cord pumps oxygenated blood to the fetus' tiny heart. The researchers emphasized that future artificial wombs for humans could only sustain babies born after 23 weeks in the womb.

NPR reports that experts are raising ethical concerns about an artificial womb, including whether it would ever be fair to test the technology on humans. 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.

Doctors say there's a desperate need for a bridge between the womb and the outside world.

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. "These animals are, by any parameter we've measured, normal", Alan Flake, who led the study, New Scientist. But growing lamb fetuses is just the beginning.

A team of pediatric scientists developed the system that uses a fluid-filled container attached to custom-designed machines that provide physiological support with the aim of supporting infants from 23 weeks to 28 weeks' gestational age where they cross the threshold away from the most severe outcomes of extreme premature birth.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of a team of researchers from Philadelphia, premature-born babies could, one day, have greater chances of survival.

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. Their organs developed without defects, they opened their eyes and they grew white wool.

The earlier a baby is born, the higher its risk of death or serious disability. It also allows medical staff to monitor vital signs and blood flow, so that they can respond should changes occur.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) announced this week that years of pediatric research have resulted in the successful growth of baby sheep in an artificial womb.

The research team estimates the device could save tens of thousands of lives each year and improve the quality of life for many premature infants. "I think it's realistic to think about three years for first-in-human trials", Flake says.

He acknowledged that parents might question the approach, but notes that the premies always could be whisked into standard care if they fared poorly in the new system.

A video further demonstrating the artificial womb's function is included below.

Other reports by Ligue1talk

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