Artificial womb trials raises hope for premature babies
An artificial womb designed to support critically premature babies has been demonstrated successfully in animals for the first time, in an advance that could transform the lives of the most fragile newborns.
Lambs born at the equivalent of 23 weeks in a human pregnancy were kept alive and appeared to develop normally while floating inside the transparent, womb-like vessel for four weeks after birth. Doctors said that the pioneering approach could radically improve outcomes for babies born so early that they cannot breathe, feed or fight infection without medical help.
Alan Flake, a foetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and lead author, said the proposed system could act as an urgently needed bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world for babies born at between 23 to 28 weeks gestation.
“If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies,” he said.
The team is in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and predicts that babies could be incubated in the system within three years in the first clinical trial.
During the past decades, the limit of viability for premature babies has been steadily pushed back to about 23 weeks, but a high proportion of these babies still suffer severe and permanent health problems as a result of their early birth.
Their immature lungs have a few air sacs with thick walls, rather than millions of tiny alveoli, in which oxygen is readily absorbed by the blood. If oxygen levels drop, heart and brain damage occur. But ventilation is also dangerous as premature lungs lack a surfactant which protects against the effects of oxygen, which can be toxic to tissue. Too much oxygen can lead to abnormal growth of blood vessels in the eye, which can leave the baby blind.
Emily Partridge, a doctor for critically premature infants at CHOP and a co-author, said: “Just looking at them it’s immediately clear that they shouldn’t be here yet, they’re not ready.”
In the study, published in Nature Communications, six premature lambs were placed in artificial wombs immediately after caesarean deliveries at the equivalent of 23 weeks human gestation. Within minutes of birth, the lamb was sealed in the biobag, linked to a gas exchanger by their umbilical cord, allowing their blood oxygen to be replenished and nutrients to be infused.
In the biobag, the lambs were immersed in a substitute amniotic fluid containing nutrients and chemicals designed to stimulate growth. While floating inside the transparent plastic vessel – in some cases for four weeks – the lambs appeared to develop normally, transforming from bald, pink foetuses into fleecy, white newborns.