Reporter and Curator: Dr. Sudipta Saha, Ph.D.
Babies born at or before 25 weeks have quite low survival outcomes, and in the US it is the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity. Just a few weeks of extra ‘growing time’ can be the difference between severe health problems and a relatively healthy baby.
Researchers from The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (USA) Research Institute have shown it’s possible to nurture and protect a mammal 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.
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. The artificial womb is a sealed and sterile bag filled with an electrolyte solution which acts like amniotic fluid in the uterus. The lamb’s own heart pumps the blood through the umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag.
The artificial womb worked in this study and after just four weeks the lambs’ brains and lungs had matured like normal. They had also grown wool and could wiggle, open their eyes, and swallow. Although this study is looking incredibly promising but getting the research up to scratch for human babies still requires a big leap.
Nevertheless, if all goes well, the researchers hope to test the device on premature humans within three to five years. Potential therapeutic applications of this invention may include treatment of fetal growth retardation related to placental insufficiency or the salvage of preterm infants threatening to deliver after fetal intervention or fetal surgery.
The technology may also provide the opportunity to deliver infants affected by congenital malformations of the heart, lung and diaphragm for early correction or therapy before the institution of gas ventilation. Numerous applications related to fetal pharmacologic, stem cell or gene therapy could be facilitated by removing the possibility for maternal exposure and enabling direct delivery of therapeutic agents to the isolated fetus.