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Artificial womb may be a lifeline for premature babies
27 April 2017, 02:06 | Violet Powell
Graphic illustration of the artificial womb developed to support very premature babies
Researchers are creating an artificial womb to improve care for extremely premature babies - and remarkable animal testing suggests the first-of-its-kind watery incubation so closely mimics mom that it just might work. 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.
"Currently, there's no way to support these infants without those associated problems", said Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at CHOP and co-inventor of the device.
His team's aim, he said, was to develop an extra-uterine system where extremely premature babies can be suspended in fluid-filled chambers for a vital few weeks to bring them over the 28-week threshold, when their life chances are dramatically improved.
Scientists used the womb to successfully grow lambs born prematurely.
But that day isn't here yet.
Extreme prematurity causes a third of all infant deaths and half of all cerebral palsy diagnoses attributed to preterm births.
Advances in neonatal care have increased the survival of premature babies, but those pushing the limits of viability (22 to 23 weeks of gestation) only have a 30 to 50% chance of survival.
They tested their technique on eight newborn lambs, born after a time analogous to earlier than 23 weeks for humans (a normal human pregnancy is about 40 weeks).
"So many research groups have been trying to develop a system like this since the 1950s, however they've met with limited success", Dr Davey said.
-Then the researchers attached the umbilical cord to a machine that exchanges carbon dioxide in blood with oxygen, like a placenta normally does.
Researchers said after just four weeks the lambs' brains and lungs had matured.
The authors also stated that the technology could be extended to other therapeutic applications such as treatment of fetal growth retardation related to placental insufficiency. The artificial womb can be a big step for the future. If they are out of the womb, a breath of air stunts lung development.
Moreover, according to sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman, from the City University of NY, the technological transformation of pregnancy could lead to a denied "human connection" among babies being "raised in a machine".
If the Food and Drug Administration trials go ahead it could be another three to five years before the devices - assuming they are proven safe and effective for newborns - are in use, Flake said.
"Foetal lungs are created to function in fluid, and we simulate that environment here, allowing the lungs and other organs to develop, while supplying nutrients and growth factors", said foetal physiologist Marcus Davey who designed the psuedo-womb's inflow and outflow system.
The team reports that the lambs' lungs and other organs developed as though they were in their mother's womb, an important improvement over the incubators and ventilators now used to keep preemies alive.
How Could This Device Help Premature Babies?
If successful, Dr Flake says they could be in use by humans in a decade; aside from the obvious medical benefits, he says it could also save the USA health system $4b a year in medical costs. 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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