Artificial womb for baby lamb raises hope for premature babies

Posted April 27, 2017

"They appear to have normal development in all respects", said Dr Flake as one of the survivors reached a year old. One of the surviving lambs now lives a healthy life on a farm in Pennsylvania.

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. There are high hopes that the technology could greatly extend the survival rate of infants born at 23 weeks, which is now close to 15pc. But it could reduce a host of complications, such as cerebral palsy. The team declared that the makeshift womb was successful in keeping premature lambs alive for more than a month.

Moreover, according to sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman, from the City University of NY, the technological transformation of pregnancy could lead to a denied "human connection" among babies being "raised in a machine".

The device, which incorporates a plastic bag filled with artificial nutrient-rich amniotic fluid, has successfully been tested on foetal lambs equivalent in age to 23-week-old human infants.

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The system is connected to a circuit that supports oxygen flow via the umbilical cord, allowing the heart to pump blood into a machine outside the artificial womb created to substitute the placenta.

"Just looking at them it's immediately clear that they shouldn't be here yet, they're not ready", said Emily Partridge, a doctor for critically premature infants at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and one of the researchers. The average human gestation period is 40 weeks.

This scheme could allow for the prevention of any severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants. The lambs grew wool, became more active, and had normal growth, neurological function, and organ maturation, as reported in Nature Communications. Scientists first developed a womb-like bag known as extra-uterine support device and tested its efficacy on preterm lamb.

In tests with animal embryos, lambs that were 15 and 17 weeks into the normal 21-week gestation process for sheep were removed by caesarean section, placed into the bags and then monitored.

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However, all of this is about to change as a team of scientists from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have created history by developing a unique womb-like device that could potentially change the face of neo-natal care in the world.

So far, the results are extremely promising.

Flake stressed that the womb-like system isn't meant to support preemies any younger than today's limits of viability - not what he calls the more "sensationalistic" idea of artificially growing embryos. There is also an artificial placenta that oxygenates the blood to keep the baby healthy. They were euthanised so the researchers could suss their organs and determine the effectiveness of the artificial womb. "That's a Matrix thing", he says, referring to the 1999 film in which humans are grown in pods. "All of the physiologic research over the past 50-60 years that have told us about fetal circulation, about developmental events, most of it has been from the lamb", Flake said. States could theoretically require women getting abortions to put their fetuses into artificial wombs, says Scott Gelfand, a bioethicist at Oklahoma State University.

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