An “artificial womb” has been produced by the scientists that promise to dramatically improve the survival chances of extremely premature babies. The device, which is a plastic bag filled with artificial nutrient-rich amniotic fluid, has successfully been tested on fetal lambs equivalent in age to 23-week-old human infants.
“Unlike conventional incubators, the “extra-uterine support device” closely reproduces conditions in a real womb. This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby” says Dr. Alan Flake, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
He adds, “The infant’s own heart circulates blood through the umbilical cord into an external gas-exchange machine taking the place of the mother’s placenta. No mechanical pump is used because even gentle artificial pressure could fatally overload an underdeveloped heart.” Scientists believe it would be ready for human trials in three to five years.
According to charity Tommy’s, the babies that are born preterm, the chance of their survival at less than 23 weeks is close to zero, while at 23 weeks the survival rate reduces to 15%, at 24 weeks 55% and at 25 weeks it is about 80%. So the aim of this research is to provide an environment in which tiny premature babies can safely develop their lungs and other organs during the critical period from 23 to 28 weeks after conception.
Dr. Alan Flake, director of the Center for Fetal Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, US, said: “These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world. 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.”
He says, “This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability. This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants.”
Six pre-term lambs were used in tests of the most recent version of the device, which evolved from a glass tank to the bio bag design over a period of three years. Animals “breathed” and swallowed normally, opened their eyes, grew wool and developed properly functioning nerves and organs, said the researchers writing in the journal Nature Communications. The lambs remained in the “womb” for up to a month. While most were killed by doctors only so that analysis of their brains, lungs and other organs can be done. A few were allowed to survive and were bottle-fed.
“They appear to have normal development in all respects,” said Dr. Flake as one of the survivors reached a year old. Dr. Flake said there was no technology “even on the horizon” that could replace a mother’s womb at the earliest stages of fetal development.