It may sound like something out of a sci-fi flick, but scientists have managed to create a device that mimics a woman’s womb, and could eventually be used to save the lives of very premature babies.
Scientists have used the ‘artificial womb’ to keep premature lambs alive for a month – a huge improvement on previous devices which have only managed to sustain life for a matter of hours.
Big breakthrough for tiny babies
It’s taken 60 years of trial and error to create the latest artificial womb, which protects the fetus in a fluid-filled bag.
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) placed fetal lambs, who were equivalent to 23 or 24 weeks gestation in a human, into the device. It managed to keep some of the animals healthy for up to 670 hours, or 28 days.
The ultimate goal is to be able to use the device to support human babies, born as early as 23 weeks, until they reach 28 weeks gestational age.
“These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world”, explains surgeon Alan Flake, Director of the Centre for Fetal Research at CHOP.
“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.”
Premature babies in Australia
In Australia, one in ten babies is born before 37 weeks gestation – that’s 73 babies every day. In 2004, a world first Melbourne-based study revealed that babies born at 24-weeks gestation have a 60 per cent chance of survival.
Of those babies that do survive, up to 90 per cent will have some sort of illness, usually due to lung immaturity.
Replicating a mother’s womb
The artificial womb has been designed to replicate life inside a uterus – the baby’s heart pumps blood via its umbilical cord and the device acts as a substitute for a mother’s placenta.
Amniotic fluid that has been created in the lab flows in and out of the bag, which is designed to protect the baby from infection.
The research team, which includes Australian fetal physiologist Marcus Davey, is now trying to create a smaller version of the device so it can be used by human babies.
“Fetal lungs are designed to function in fluid, and we simulate that environment here, allowing the lungs and other organs to develop, while supplying nutrients and growth factors,” says Dr Davey.
In the most recent animal experiments, the foetal lambs inside the bags remained healthy, showed normal breathing and swallowing, opened their eyes, grew wool, became more active and had normal growth, neurological function and organ maturation.
“If our system is as successful as we think it can be, ultimately the majority of pregnancies predicted at-risk for extreme prematurity would be delivered onto an system that keeps them immersed, rather than being delivered onto a ventilator,” says Dr Flake.
“With that we would have normal physiologic development and avoid essentially all of the major risks of prematurity — and that would translate into a huge impact on paediatric health.”
Meanwhile, make sure you take a look at the new MRI ultrasound giving doctors the most incredible view of babies in the womb.