Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

Posted April 28, 2017

In early-stage testing, conducted on lambs, they found that extremely premature lambs grew apparently regularly, inside of the container for about three to four weeks.

Turns out, it didn't just survive, it thrived.

A stunning new development could help extremely premature babies survive - it's an artificial womb created to give preemies a few extra weeks to develop.

The researchers are now working with the FDA on preliminary studies to clear the way for the first clinical trial of the device in human babies. Doctors are also interested in adding some subtleties like audio recordings that simulate sounds a fetus would normally hear in the womb, like the mother's heartbeat.

Based on the study, the key to making premature babies survive is to treat them like fetuses inside the womb and extend the gestation period, contrary to caring for them in an incubator. The system was tested on lambs which showed normal growth and looked healthy after a few weeks of gestating in the womb-like sac.

Flake stressed that the womb-like system is not meant to support premies any younger than today's limits of viability - not what he calls the more "sensationalistic" idea of artificially growing embryos.

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"This will require a lot of additional preclinical research and development and this treatment will not enter the clinic any time soon", Colin Duncan of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was not involved in the research told BBC News.

Inside the artificial womb, the lambs continued to grow. This facilitated normal development of lungs and other organs in the lamb.

The details about this artificial womb are described in a paper titled: "An extra-uterine physiologic support system for the extreme premature lamb" in the journal Nature Communications.

Advances in technology have pushed back the limit of viability to about 23 weeks, at which point a baby has a 30 to 50 percent chance of survival, and a serious risk of major health complications, including chronic lung disease or other complications of organ immaturity. They say the device could transform care for extremely premature babies - born at between 23 and 26 weeks of gestation - and significantly improve their chances of survival.

In this photo provided by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr. Alan Flake a fetal surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who is leading the research to develop a fluid-filled incubation system that mimics a mother's womb, to help extremely premature infants. "If we can create the environment that will allow lung development. that's a tremendous investment in premature babies". Flake and his team have patented the device and are consulting the Food and Drug Administration before conducting preclinical animal trials within the next few years.

The team tested five lambs whose biological age was equivalent to 23-week human fetuses and also tested three more lambs that were a little older.