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Scientists Create a Fluid-Filled Artificial Womb for Preterm Babies

Researchers led by a fetal surgeon Alan Flake at the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia have developed a new device that functions much like a human womb. A paper documenting the development process and further testing has been published Tuesday in the science journal Nature Communications.

So far, the “artificial womb” has been tested on lambs (a common proxy for human embryos) with encouraging results – the lambs developed normally and are currently thriving.

A lamb inside an “artificial womb”. Image courtesy of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

The device consists of a clear plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid and a machine outside the bag that connects to the umbilical cord and functions like a placenta, providing nutrition and oxygen, and removing carbon dioxide from the blood.

“The whole idea is to support normal development; to re-create everything that the mother does in every way that we can to support normal fetal development and maturation,“ said Flake.

Other researchers had lauded the device as a major breakthrough, which could help thousands of babies born extremely prematurely. A normal pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, and babies born at fewer than 37 weeks gestational age are considered to be premature.

In the near future, provided the success of human trials, the device could be adapted for those born 23 to 24 weeks into pregnancy. At 28 weeks, the babies would be removed and turned over to regular neonatal care, thereby significantly boosting their chances of survival and normal development.

Before human trials can begin, the benefits of an “artificial womb” will have to be weighed against the inevitable margin for error, which might cause a substantial amount of stress and physical pain in human subjects.

Flake had also emphasized that the device would be able to create a much more natural environment for the baby as compared to current best care options.

“We’ll try to make it an environment that is parent friendly, a much less stressful situation than seeing their fetus on an incubator and exposed bed, having IVs started and experiencing painful and uncomfortable stimuli like bright lights”.

Flake had also dismissed concerns over the extension of viability further back, calling them “a pipe dream” and said it was never even on the table.

The authors hope to commence human trials within the next three to five years.

Sources: research paper, researchgate.net, npr.org.

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