Artificial Wombs are Being Designed to Help Premature Babies

They developed an artificial womb - essentially a polyethylene bag filled with artificial amniotic fluid - that the child would immediately be placed into after being removed from its mother via C-section.

Researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia are creating an artificial womb to help extremely premature babies.

Premature infants weighing as little as a pound are hooked to ventilators and other machines inside incubators, so their lungs can more fully develop. The fluid-filled support mechanism is the outcome of three years of research and innovation that first started with a series of four prototypes - beginning with a glass incubator tank and progressing to the current apparatus.

Researchers in Philadelphia have successfully gestated premature lambs in sealed plastic bags outside the womb, giving some hope for critically premature human babies (and their parents) at some point in the future.

Animals "breathed" and swallowed normally, opened their eyes, grew wool and developed properly functioning nerves and organs, said the researchers writing in the journal Nature Communications. "It's hard to describe actually how uniquely awe-inspiring it is to see".

"It's certainly not our goal to extend the limits of viability", says Flake, adding that his team's goal "is to improve survival for extremely premature infants".

The researchers want the womb to one day be used in neonatal intensive care units as an alternative to ventilation for babies born at 23 weeks gestation onwards. Almost 90 percent of those who survive face severe health problems, such as chronic lung disease and complications arising from poor organ development.

Dr. Alan Flake, the director of Center for Fetal Research tells that 1% of American infant are born prematurely; moreover, the number is hiking at an alarming stage in the recent years.

The idea of treating premies in fluid-filled incubators may sound unusual, but physiologically it makes sense, said Dr Catherine Spong, a foetal medicine specialist at the National Institutes of Health.

Colin Duncan, a professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: "This is a really attractive concept and this study is a very important step forward".

One of the biggest risks for very young premies is that their lungs are not ready to breathe air, she explained.

The lambs were in a special amniotic fluid that had chemicals created to promote growth. "We simulate that environment. allowing the lungs and other organs to develop while supplying nutrients and growth factors", he said.

Eight lambs survived as long as four weeks inside the devices, which connected the animals' umbilical cords to machinery enabling fluid gas exchange to their developing lungs.

"We make gallons of this stuff a day", said fetal physiologist Marcus Davey.

The external or artificial womb - called a Biobag by developers - is meant to give infants born months too early a more natural, uterus-like environment to continue developing in.

But, if you could find a way to replicate the womb outside the mother, perhaps extremely premature babies would have a better shot at a healthy childhood.

Blood then flows out of the umbilical cord through these tubes to an oxygenator which extracts carbon dioxide and adds oxygen.

  • Aubrey Nash