Artificial 'Biobag' Womb Successfully Keeps Premature Lamb Alive For 4 Weeks

"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world", Alan Flake, Specialist Surgeon, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

But researchers have shown it's possible to nurture and protect lambs in late stages of gestation inside an artificial womb; technology which could become a lifesaver for many premature human babies in just a few years. It's filled with amniotic fluid, and connected to a flow of oxygenated blood, just like the umbilical cord would ordinarily provide.

The foetal lambs grew in a temperature-controlled, near- sterile environment, breathing amniotic fluid as they normally would do in the womb, their hearts pumping blood through their umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag.

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". The growing fetus inhales and swallows the fluid, similar to what happens in a natural womb. Flake hopes it could be used clinically in humans in a decade. It's a little more than halfway through pregnancy, and it's at this age that the fetus has at least a fighting chance of surviving outside its mother's body.

The lambs grew wool, became more active, and had normal growth, neurological function, and organ maturation, as reported in Nature Communications. Human versions of this artificial wombs should become available within the next two years, the Philadelphia team declared.

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"And there are some unpublished reports that these animals have been progressing normally after they've so-called "delivered" them at the end of their experience".

Whether you think it's a miracle or a controversy, saving the lives of premature babies with an alternative incubator is an idea worth exploring. The team envisions developing a system that would be a radical departure from keeping preterm babies in artificially ventilated incubators. That's due, in part, to their underdeveloped lungs, liver, kidney and brain that are forced to start working months earlier than normal.

The researchers took eight lambs between 105 to 120 days gestation (the physiological equivalent of 23 to 24 weeks in humans) and placed them inside the artificial womb.

One of the invention's key features that the premature lambs brought to term with this machine didn't breathe in air. Once "birthed", the lung function of lambs supported in the team's devices "has essentially caught up to that of a mature infant", Partridge added.

She noted that human testing is still three to five years away, although the researchers are already in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration. Despite the advanced health care facilities available in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a large number of these infants suffer from a number of health problems, wherein the parents have to decide between opting for extreme health care measures to keep these infants alive and a less painful care.

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