Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow


27 April, 2017

It's something that wouldn't be out of place in a sci-fi movie - a lamb inside a plastic bag with tubes and fluids helping it grow.

Researchers have managed to keep prematurely born baby sheep alive for four weeks in an "artificial womb" known as a "biobag".

The machine, described in the journal Nature Communications, consists of a plastic bag which is kept full of electrolyte solution made in a lab to simulate amniotic fluid.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of a team of researchers from Philadelphia, premature-born babies could, one day, have greater chances of survival.

Dr. Marcus Davey, one of the lead authors of the study, and a prominent figure in the area of Australian fetal research declared that the artificial womb developed at Philadelphia's Center for Fetal Research could significantly improve the outcome of premature births.

Of the one in ten premature births in the United States, 30,000 are annually liable to be critically preterm. "I think it's just an unbelievable thing to sit there and watch the fetus on this support acting like it normally acts in the womb".

"I would be very concerned if other parties wanted to use this device to try to extend the limits of viability". "They've had normal development in every way that we can measure it", Flake added.

This extreme prematurity is the nation's leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity.

Globally, more than one in 10 pregnancies will end in preterm birth.

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The researchers are working with the US Food and Drug Administration to prepare human trials, which could start within three years. There is a significant risk of infection and achieving the proper mix of nutrients and hormones to support a human baby will be hard, BBC News reported.

This way the animal gets oxygen as it would in the womb, through blood, rather than by using its underdeveloped lungs, buying time for the lungs and other organs to grow normally.

It all works together so that blood flows to and from the fetus, through a gas-exchange interface similar to what would occur across a placenta, while the fetus remains in a stable fluid environment.

"This will require is a lot of additional preclinical research and development and this treatment will not enter the clinic anytime soon", he said. It also helps insulate and protect a fetus from infection and maintains temperature, pressure and light. They've recently demonstrated a womb-like environment filled with a substance that mimics the prenatal fluid.

This artificial womb was originally created to sustain lamb fetuses - which previous research indicated are good models for human fetal development - by recreating the uterus of a pregnant animal.

"All the parameters that we measured in the fetal lamb system appeared normal". But he cautioned it could be a long time before this sort of technology was being used in hospitals.

Flake hopes it could be used clinically in humans in a decade.

An artificial womb has been invented that researchers say can support the growth of premature lambs for a month, as if they had still been growing inside their mother. The lungs of such infants aren't ready to inhale air and do so very poorly, and as a result preemies suffer abnormally high levels of lung and brain illnesses if they survive.

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