Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

In the study, lambs that could not otherwise survive on their own were able to survive up to four weeks in the artificial womb, giving them enough time to sufficiently develop their lungs and other organs.

"They've managed to now keep some of these lambs alive for at least a month". And they are monitoring the few lambs that survived after being taken off the ventilator to look for long-term problems. The eight lambs in their study showed normal development in the artificial womb for up to four weeks.

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. Doctors are also interested in adding some subtleties like audio recordings that simulate sounds a fetus would normally hear in the womb, like the mother's heartbeat.

Right now, the doctors are growing lambs in the artificial wombs.

Ultimately, the lambs were placed in the transparent biobags just 105 days after they started development, which is equivalent to about 22 weeks of human development. The researchers emphasized that future artificial wombs for humans could only sustain babies born after 23 weeks in the womb.

From a historical standpoint, it appears that the idea of putting together an artificial environment which closely mimics the womb's biological parameters is not entirely new, researchers attempting to construct one since the early '50s. These babies are often born with a number of potentially life-threatening complications including respiratory distress, lack of swallowing reflexes, and low body temperature.

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That's where the "artificial womb" device comes in.

"People pursued it for about 60 years experimentally but we were able to do what others haven't been able to do and some of that is related to technology", said the fetal surgeon, who is director of the Center for Fetal Research at the Philadelphia hospital.

Their hearts were pumping blood through their umbilical cord into a gas machine outside the bag and electronic monitors measured their vital signs, blood flow and other crucial functions.

The CHOP researchers tested the device in premature lambs, and published the results of their research today in the journal Nature Communications.

Flake said that such ethical concerns need to be balanced with the risks premature babies face, such as severe disabilities and even death. Unlike conventional incubators, the biobag surrounds a premature baby with a liquid that is similar to the amniotic fluid that would encompass it naturally. "If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", Flake said.

He acknowledged that parents might question the approach, but notes that the premies always could be whisked into standard care if they fared poorly in the new system.

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