'Plastic bag' womb could help keep premature babies alive

"Over four weeks we see that fetus open its eyes, grow wool, breathe, swim", said Dr. Emily Partridge, a CHOP research fellow and first author of the study published in Nature Communications. The womb-like device uses a temperature-controlled sac filled with synthetic amniotic fluid.

"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist", study leader and director of the hospital's Center for Fetal Research Dr Alan Flake says.

"If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", Flake said.

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

But that day isn't here yet. Right now, being born too early is the leading cause of infant mortality.

After all, each year in the USA about 30,000 babies are born before gestating for 26 weeks. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants".

In the study, the premature lambs, equivalent in age to 23to 24 week-old human infants, appeared to develop normally in their bags. "There are still huge challenges to refine the technique, to make good results more consistent and eventually to compare outcomes with current neonatal intensive care strategies", said Colin Duncan, professor of reproductive medicine and science at the University of Edinburgh, who was not involved in the research.

The system is connected to a circuit that supports oxygen flow via the umbilical cord, allowing the heart to pump blood into a machine outside the artificial womb created to substitute the placenta.

Researchers said after just four weeks the lambs' brains and lungs had matured.

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There are no mechanical pumps - it is the foetus's heart that keeps things moving.

"Foetal 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", said foetal physiologist Marcus Davey who designed the psuedo-womb's inflow and outflow system.

Humans have recently unlocked a new cure to help premature babies now enduring pain beyond our imagination (natural birth). "These animals are, by any parameter we've measured, normal", Alan Flake, who led the study, New Scientist.

Human testing still is three to five years away, although the team already is in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration.

These findings shine a ray of hope for the 30,000 or so critically preterm babies that get born yearly in the United States.

Premature babies often can't survive because their tiny organs haven't had enough time to develop.

If the artificial womb proves successful in helping human preemies, it could end up blurring the lines between a fetus and a baby, potentially impacting abortion politics, she added. "I think it's just an incredible thing to sit there and watch the fetus on this support acting like it normally acts in the womb".

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.

  • Marjorie Miles