Health Care

Artificial Womb Supports Premature Fetal Lamb Development

Artificial Womb Supports Premature Fetal Lamb Development”

"Currently, there's no way to support these infants without those associated problems", said Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at CHOP and co-inventor of the device.

Researchers tested the extra-uterine support device and monitored its effects on foetal lambs, in which prenatal lung development is very similar to that occurring in humans. The animals "breathed" and swallowed normally, opened their eyes, grew wool and developed properly functioning nerves and organs, said the researchers in the journal Nature Communications.

A singular womb-like arrangement that has been designed by pediatricians could change the way we look at premature babies in the future.

Flake stressed that the womb-like system is not meant to support premies any younger than today's limits of viability - not what he calls the more "sensationalistic" idea of artificially growing embryos.

"Foetal lungs are created to function in fluid, and we simulate that environment here, allowing the lungs and other organs to develop, while supplying nutrients and growth factors", said foetal physiologist Marcus Davey who designed the psuedo-womb's inflow and outflow system.

"One of the unspoken things in extreme preterm birth is that there are families who say, 'If I had known the outcome for my baby could be this bad, I wouldn't have chosen to put her through everything, '" she said in an interview with the Verge.

The researchers have developed several prototypes of the artificial womb over the past three years, starting off with a glass incubator tank and resulting in the current fluid-filled sac. Just as the fetus is surrounded by the amniotic liquid inside the mom's uterus, the plastic bag-like womb is filled with a liquid which has the same physiological properties as its biological counterpart.

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The hope is this technology will one day be used to aid development of severely premature babies. The average human gestation period is 40 weeks. This study is yet to be done on humans and the researchers hope for it to be successful, just like the outcome that the fetal lamb had. There are two tubes, one sucking blood out of the infant then running it through an oxygenator and another feeding the blood back into the body. In both systems, infants breathe a simulated amniotic fluid, but in MI, they're not immersed in a bag of fluid.

This way the animal gets oxygen as it would in the womb, through blood, rather than by using its underdeveloped lungs, buying time for the lungs and other organs to grow normally.

"Fluid is very important in terms of fetal lung development", said Flake.

A video further demonstrating the artificial womb's function is included below. In most cases, an infant in an artificial womb would be removed at that stage, to reduce the risks of infection and blood clots that come with the device. It will also need to be down-sized, since human babies are only one-third the size of the lambs used in the study.

Increasingly hospitals attempt to save the most critically premature infants, those born before 26 weeks gestation and even those right at the limits of viability - 22 to 23 weeks.

Flake told reporters that his team is now working with the US Food and Drug Administration to design a preclinical study to further evaluate the safety and efficacy of the system.

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