The scene which has a lamb in a plastic bag, connected to multiple tubes and full of fluids is something that could easily be mistaken for science fiction.
The reality however is stranger than fiction, and researchers have successfully been able to nurture premature lambs which were late in gestation inside the artificial womb. The technology if applied successfully to humans could be a major life saver for premature babies in as little as 3 to 5 years from now.
Commonly, human babies born before the 25 week mark have very low survival outcomes.
“Just looking at them it’s immediately clear that they shouldn’t be here yet, they’re not ready,” said Emily Partridge, a doctor for critically premature infants at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and one of the researchers.
The artificial womb can allow the babies to continue development, and the extra few weeks of development could be absolutely critical in the probability of the child suffering from severe long term health issues compared to a healthy child.
“These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world,” says Alan Flake, senior researcher for the study and a foetal surgeon at the CHOP.
“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.”
Researchers took 8 lambs which were approximately between 105 and 120 days into gestation, and placed them inside the artificial womb.
The artificial womb is a sealed, sterile plastic bag filled with an electrolyte solution which acts like the amniotic fluid in a natural womb. The lamb, connected through the womb, pumps blood via it’s own heart through the umbilical cord and into a gas exchange machine outside the bag.
Amazingly, the lambs used in the experiment showed signs of success, and after 4 weeks the brain and lungs had matured, and they had grown fur and began to open their eyes and wriggle around.
“We’ve been extremely successful in replacing the conditions in the womb in our lamb model,” said Flake to Rob Stein at 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.”
Check out the above video for more information.