Artificial womb may be a lifeline for premature babies

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Doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have created an artificial womb, that they hope can one day protect humans from the complications of premature births. They have made some initial tests using lamb fetuses with promising results. The environment of each artificial womb allowed all of the lamb fetuses to survive and thrive.

Turns out, it didn't just survive, it thrived.

In pre-clinical trials with lambs, experts were able to mimic the environment similar to the womb along with the functions of the placenta.

This is being done at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the concept of the artificial womb is to treat the premature babies more like fetuses rather than newborns in an effort to increases their chances of survival. The researchers emphasized that future artificial wombs for humans could only sustain babies born after 23 weeks in the womb.

The external or artificial womb - called a Biobag by developers - is meant to give infants born months too early a more natural, uterus-like environment to continue developing in.

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. In the past, all efforts to develop artificial uteruses or wombs in labs have failed miserably due to technical concerns and circulatory failures.

"Fetal 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", Marcus Davey, Ph.D., a fetal physiologist who designed and redesigned the system's inflow and outflow apparatus, said in a statement.

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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.

Human infants born at 23 weeks have just a 15 per cent chance of survival, according to pregnancy research charity Tommy's.

"This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can now do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability", Flake concluded.

The team tested its extra-uterine device on eight preterm lambs which were physiologically equivalent to a 23- or 24-week-gestation human infant.

Advancements in healthcare and medical technology has steadily improved the odds for premature babies. "I think it's realistic to think about three years for first-in-human trials", Flake says. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants".

Rather, it is meant to function as a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world, supporting the infant from 23 weeks to 28 weeks of gestational age, after which time the effects of prematurity are minimal. The device also allows researchers to monitor key vital signs and blood flow, so that doctors can respond quickly if the patient starts to deteriorate.