It’s like a sci-fi movie- a lamb growing inside a plastic bag. But researchers made it a reality. Scientists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have created an artificial womb to sustain the life of premature babies. They have shown that it is possible to nurture and protect lambs in the late stages of gestation inside an artificial womb.
According to researchers, the technology could become a lifesaver for many premature human babies in just a few years.
The artificial womb looks like an oversized plastic bag with tubes and fluids. It is filled with an electrolyte solution which acts like amniotic fluid in the uterus.
Alan Flake, the senior researcher for the study, said, “These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world.”
“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.”
UA/UV Biobag system design:
Scientists took eight lambs between 105 to 120 days gestation and placed them inside the artificial womb. The lambs were placed in artificial wombs after being removed via Caesarean section. They then sealed the lambs in the womb. After that, they linked to a gas exchanger through the umbilical cord, which gave their blood oxygen and nutrients as if they were still in utero.
Scientists noted, “Respiratory failure represents the most common and challenging problem. A gas exchange in critically preterm neonates is impaired by the structural and functional immaturity of the lungs.”
The lambs were in a special amniotic fluid that had chemicals designed to promote growth. During the growth, the lambs developed as their brain, lungs, and other vital organs grew. Through the umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag, the lab’s heart pumps.
In the lab, the artificial womb proved successful in animal testing for the first time. After four weeks, the lambs’ brains and lungs had matured.
Flake said, “it’s complete science fiction to think that you can take an embryo and get it through the early developmental process and put it on our machine without the mother being the critical element there.”
“The Biobags serve as crucial bridges between the womb and the world. If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies.”
The technology provides a safety net to give a premature child every chance of survival.
He said, “I’ve still blown away, whenever I’m down looking at our lambs. I think it’s just an amazing thing to sit there and watch the fetus on this support acting like it normally acts in the womb… It’s a really awe-inspiring endeavor to be able to continue normal gestation outside of the mom.”