Scientists grew lambs in artificial wombs. They want premature babies to be next

Click to play video: 'This lamb grew in an artificial womb'
This lamb grew in an artificial womb
WATCH: Scientists used an artificial womb to grow lambs for four weeks. – Apr 26, 2017

Picture a plastic bag full of fluid that’s supposed to mimic a womb-like environment. Scientists in the United States have developed an external artificial womb in the hopes of giving extremely premature babies a better chance at living.

Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have successfully tested the womb on eight premature lambs. In the span of four weeks, doctors say the lambs’ brains and lungs grew. They also opened their eyes, learned how to swallow and grew wool.

The device looks like a large water pillow and is filled with laboratory-produced amniotic fluid. It’s also equipped with tubes attached to the umbilical cord to allow the fetus to circulate its blood and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen in a gas exchange machine outside the bag.

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In pre-clinical studies with lambs, researchers were able to create a uterus-like environment which allowed the fetuses to continue to develop. They hope in the future it can provide a safe space for the tiniest newborns as premature as 23 weeks (or six months) to develop their lungs and other major organs.

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“These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world,” said Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who led the development of the new device.

“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.”

Flake and his team of researchers published their findings in Nature.

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Worldwide, the primary cause of infant deaths today is premature birth, according to the World Health Organization. Almost one million children die each year due to complications from pre-term birth.

At the moment, hospitals in Canada and the United States use incubator tanks attached to ventilators to host premature babies. When babies are outside of their mothers’ bodies too early, the ones who survive need medication, IVs and ventilation as many of their major organs are not fully developed.

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“This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability. This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants,” Flake said.

But could the artificial womb also allow for the growth of babies from embryos in the future? Researchers say no, it’s complete science fiction to think an embryo’s development could happen in the device. The mother is a critical element, says Flake.

Instead, the external womb, called biobag, would only give babies born as early as 23 weeks a more natural, uterus-like environment to live in until they get to term. At that age, a human baby weighs roughly one pound, its lungs are not able to cope with air and its chances of survival are low.

Keeping that in mind, researchers added electronic monitors outside of the device to be able to measure vital signs, blood flow and other functions of the pre-term lambs in the tests. The researchers say they chose lambs for their experiment because their lung development is very similar to humans.

Of course, lambs aren’t human and the researchers acknowledge that their brains develop at a different pace. It’s going to take time before the external womb can be used on humans. The team of researchers will continue to evaluate and refine their current external womb and hope to create a version for human infants in the next 10 years.

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“Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not currently exist.”

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