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'Womb-like' Device Could Revolutionize Care for Premature Infants
27 April 2017, 02:11 | Nichole Osborne
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A groundbreaking study came out on April. 25, announcing scientists have created an "artificial womb" in the hopes of someday using the device to save babies born extremely prematurely. The animals "breathed" and swallowed normally, opened their eyes, grew wool and developed properly functioning nerves and organs, said the researchers in the journal Nature Communications.
This environment has a fixed temperature, is sterile and filled with 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", said study leader Alan W. Flake, fetal surgeon and director of the Center for Fetal Research in the Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment 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 the outcomes for extremely premature babies.
But that day isn't here yet.
"If we take a look at mortality of infants born at 24 weeks, it's around about 50 per cent."
In the womb, their mothers delivered oxygen via blood through their umbilical cords.
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.
In answer to all these concerns, Flake points out the ethical concerns should be balanced against the risk of death and severe disabilities faced by extremely premature infants.
The researchers tested five lambs whose biological age was equivalent to 23-week human preemies, and three more a bit older. The idea is that extremely premature babies, lambs in this case, can be put into the bag which will take on the functions of a womb.
Other lambs were euthanized after the four weeks and examined, all of which appeared to show healthy development with no abnormalities.
"This is still pre-clinical or experimental data, but the research group in Philadelphia have managed to overcome numerous limitations others have had in supporting a baby or foetus with womb-like conditions", he said.
Their bodies and organs grew at a normal weight, and they got adorable white downy coats while in the bag.
"That's the beauty of it, and why I'm optimistic we will improve on what is now done for extremely premature babies", he told journalists by phone. If they are out of the womb, a breath of air stunts lung development.
In Australia, experts have said that if the artificial womb could meet its promise, it could become a valuable new tool in the critical care arsenal.
Dr Flake said there was no technology "even on the horizon" that could replace a mother's womb at the earliest stages of foetal development.
The team tested and monitored the effects of the system on eight fetal lambs, which develop their prenatal lungs in a similar way to human beings. And while further adaptation of the device is needed before it can begin human testing, he envisioned parents being able to see the baby and even piping in the sound of the mother's heartbeat.
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