An artificial womb developed by researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia could help extremely premature newborns survive by closely replicating the conditions within the mother, according to a study published online Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.
According to the Associated Press, premature babies weighing as little as a pound are currently placed within incubators and hooked to ventilators, but the authors of the new paper have come up with a new system that more closely simulates the environment of the mother’s womb.
While, as NPR noted, it has only been tested on fetal lambs thus far, the early results have been encouraging and could give babies born far too early a better chance of survival by treating them more like fetuses than newborn infants, allowing them to continue their normal development.
“We’ve been extremely successful in replacing the conditions in the womb in our lamb model,” lead investigator Dr. Alan Flake, the Director of the Center for Fetal Research in the Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told NPR.
“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,” he added. “What we tried to do is develop a system that mimics the environment of the womb as closely as possible. It’s basically an artificial womb.”
‘Technological miracle’ could lower mortality, morbidity rates
In a statement, the researchers explained that fetal lambs were chosen to test the device due to the similarity between their prenatal lung development and that of humans, and Dr. Flake noted that his team is hopeful that they will be able to test the device on human babies within the next three to five years.
As for the device itself, it consists of a clear container filled with synthetic amniotic fluid which is attached to special machines that provide nutrients and oxygen to the blood and removes CO2 like a placenta, according to NPR. This allows fetuses to grow in temperature controlled, nearly sterile conditions while their hearts pump blood through their umbilical cords and into a machine located outside of the bag and their vital signs are constantly monitored.
“We’re trying to extend normal gestation,” Dr. Flake told the AP, adding that his team views the machine as a temporary bridge connecting development in the womb to life in the outside world. “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,” he told NPR.
His team believes that their machine can offer new hope to the approximately 30,000 critically preterm (younger than 26 weeks) infants born in the US each year. Extreme prematurity, they noted, is the nation’s leading cause of infant mortality and accounts for one-third of all infant-related deaths in the US – and even those that survive face a 90 percent risk of morbidity from chronic lung disease or other complications related to organ immaturity, the authors said.
Experts in the field are hailing their work. Jay Greenspan, a pediatrician at Thomas Jefferson University, called it a “technological miracle” and Temple University physiology and pediatrics professor Thomas Shaffer told NPR that is was “a major breakthrough.” Likewise, Dr. Catherine Spong, a fetal medicine specialist at the National Institutes of Health, told the AP that it was “an innovative, promising first step.”
Image credit: The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia