Artificial womb for premature babies? This baby sheep is growing inside a plastic bag

The approach might one day help nurture and protect premature babies outside the uterus, providing a better chance for survival and eliminating the health risk of pregnancy.

By Zee Media Bureau | Last Updated: Apr 26, 2017, 14:18 PM IST
Artificial womb for premature babies? This baby sheep is growing inside a plastic bag
Image credit: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia/YouTube

New Delhi: It's not a sci-fi movie – a premature lamb fitted with tubes and fluids is growing inside a plastic bag.

Scientists have been able to keep a baby sheep alive for weeks using an artificial womb that resembles a plastic bag.

The approach might one day help nurture and protect premature babies outside the uterus, providing a better chance for survival and eliminating the health risk of pregnancy.

 

Although the technology has only been tested on sheep, researchers hope it could become a lifesaver for many premature human babies in just a few years.

"Just looking at them it's immediately clear that they shouldn't be here yet, they're not ready," said Emily Partridge, a doctor for critically premature infants at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and one of the researchers.

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.

In babies born preterm, the chance of survival at less than 23 weeks is close to zero, while at 23 weeks it is 15%, at 24 weeks 55% and at 25 weeks about 80%.

With an artificial womb the babies can continue developing – even just a few weeks extra 'growing time' can be the difference between severe health problems and a relatively healthy baby.

"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world," says Alan Flake, senior researcher for the study and a foetal surgeon at the CHOP.

In the study, the premature lambs, equivalent in age to 23to 24 week-old human infants, appeared to develop normally in their bags.

The plastic 'biobag' womb is filled with 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.

Researchers said after just four weeks the lambs' brains and lungs had matured. They had also grown wool and could wiggle, open their eyes, and swallow.

"We've been extremely successful in replacing the conditions in the womb in our lamb model," lead investigator Dr Alan Flake was quoted as saying.

"They've had normal growth. They've had normal lung maturation. They've had normal brain maturation. They've had normal development in every way that we can measure it."

Watch more about the breakthrough research in the video below!

 
Video credit: The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

The team of researchers insist it is not looking to replace mothers or extend the limits of viability, but to find a better way to support babies born prematurely.

The research has been published in Nature Communications.