Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Health | By Jay Jacobs

Could Artificial Womb Reduce Mortality for Extremely Premature Babies?

Could Artificial Womb Reduce Mortality for Extremely Premature Babies?

Photos courtesy of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and iStock. The device acts as an artificial womb, and a "biobag" mimics the natural uterus that allows the development of a fetus.

In early-stage testing, conducted on lambs, they found that extremely premature lambs grew apparently regularly, inside of the container for about three to four weeks.

Image courtesy of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Unlike conventional incubators, the "extra-uterine support device" closely reproduces conditions in a real womb. Sensors and automation ensure the environment is nearly perfectly sterile and the temperature is constant.

The authors go on to show "lambs on support maintain stable haemodynamics, have normal blood gas and oxygenation parameters and maintain patency of the fetal circulation".

This is because even gentle pumps produce pressure that can fatally overload an underdeveloped heart, the researchers explain. Immature lungs can't breathe atmospheric oxygen.

To test the artificial womb, the premature lambs were delivered by C-section and immediately put into a temperature-controlled bag that was filled with a substitute for the amniotic fluid that they need to swallow and take into their lungs for properly developing them. This feeds the fetus's bloodstream with oxygen and nutrients, doubling as a system for carbon dioxide removal.

Modern neonatal care practices have pushed the overall survival of premature infants to 22 or 23 weeks of gestation where the infants weight a little more than 1.5 pounds and has a 30-to-50 percent chance of survival.

Babies who are born extremely prematurely either don't survive or live with serious lasting disabilities.

The transition period that exists between the mother's womb and the outside world requires comprehensive planning and intensive care.

But could the artificial womb also allow for the growth of babies from embryos in the future? Over the course of four weeks, the lambs grew and developed as if they were still in utero.

The study was in Nature Communications.

"They appear to have normal development in all respects", said Dr Flake as one of the survivors reached a year old. Credit: Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Lambs were used due to their close genetic proximity to humans. The premature lambs were the equivalent of a human fetus born during the 23rd week of pregnancy.

But, if you could find a way to replicate the womb outside the mother, perhaps extremely premature babies would have a better shot at a healthy childhood.

"We'll try to make it an environment that is parent friendly, a much less stressful situation than seeing their fetus on an incubator and exposed bed, having IVs started and experiencing painful and uncomfortable stimuli like bright lights", Flake told ResearchGate. 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.

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.

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