Researchers create artificial womb for premature babies

Posted May 11, 2017

Scientists have been able to keep a baby sheep alive for weeks using an artificial womb that resembles a plastic bag.

A bag is filled with lab made amniotic fluid.

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

Dr Alan Flake, of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said: "Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants".

In this drawing provided by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, an illustration of a fluid-filled incubation system that mimics a mother's womb, in hopes of one day improving survival of extremely premature babies.

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A paper detailing the study was published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have been working on an artificial womb called the "BioBag", which, admittedly, is a awful name for a potentially wonderful product.

The eight preterm lambs tested in the prototype were physiologically equivalent to a 23- or 24-week-gestation human infant.

"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist".

Designer of the flow apparatus, Marcus Davey (also from CHOP) explains: "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".

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The system will be refined further, partly to downsize it for infants which are around one-third the size of the lambs used in the study.

"We've actually been able to replicate the normal physiology of the fetus", said Flake.

The group of scientists worked with five premature lambs aged 105 to 111 days, as they are developmentally similar to a human fetus at 23 weeks and also also experimented with three lambs that were slightly more mature, age 115 to 120 days. Getting there will involve improving the amniotic fluid substitute, adding foetal urine, nutrients and growth factors to the mix.

The infant's own heart circulates blood through the umbilical cord into an external machine taking the place of the mother's placenta.

Flake and team will continue to refine and safety-test the device, which will need to pass through animal trials before humans studies could be considered. They have a staggering 90 percent chance of mortality, while half of all cases of cerebral palsy are due to prematurity. They've already started testing it on human-sized lambs that were put in the Biobags earlier in pregnancy.

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