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Artificial Womb: A New Hope for Extreme Preemies

04-27-2017

Ideally, babies stay inside their mother's womb for 40 weeks.  However, we all know they sometimes come early and there's nothing we can do to stop them.  

As medical science advances, babies who are born earlier and earlier continue to live.  These days, a baby born at a shockingly premature 23 weeks gestation (that's three-and-a-half months early!) can not only survive, but eventually live a normal life.  This was unheard of years ago.  

The truth is, babies who have lived just 23 weeks inside their mother's womb have everything they need for life outside her body.  Basically, the only thing they do in the mother's womb from 23 weeks until they are born...is grow.  "Everything is formed at that stage but is very, very immature," Dr. Jonathan Fanaroff, from the NICU at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, told ABC News.

Although babies who are born at 23 weeks can survive, too many of them do not.  And although many who do survive go on to live healthy lives, too many of them suffer with lifelong health complications, such as lung or brain issues.  That's because when babies are born so prematurely, they are placed in incubators to help them grow, and on ventilators to help them breathe.   These tools are the best medical science has had to offer until now, but are not perfect.

The good news is, it looks like that's about to change.   Researchers at the Center for Fetal Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia came up with an incredible device, nicknamed a "biobag," that actually mimics the mother's womb, complete with amniotic fluid and a cleverly designed umbilical cord just like mom's. 

The idea is to place the prematurely born baby inside the fluid-filled incubation system and just let the baby grow for a few weeks until it's strong enough to handle life on the outside.  

"I think it's very exciting. You know, in a lot of ways this is what we're trying to do in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit today, we're trying to do our best to mimic the environment they have in the womb," Fanaroff said. "This looks like the next step."

The biobag is temperature controlled and sterile. It uses a gas exchange system to oxygenate the blood, recreating how a baby "breathes" in the womb. The child's vital signs are constantly monitored, so doctors can step-in in case a problem arises. 

Dr. Alan W. Flake, a fetal surgeon and director of the Center for Fetal Research at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia said, "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."

Right now the artificial womb is being tested on animals.  Eight baby lambs to be precise.  The lambs are taken from their real mothers' wombs prematurely, at a time that would mimic 23 weeks for a human baby (the gestation period for lambs is different from humans'). Then the premature lambs are placed in the artificial womb.  

All eight of the lambs tested survived and grew in the artificial womb, then were safely taken out, which is exactly what researchers hoped would happen. 

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

After the testing phase is complete, doctors could begin to use it on humans.

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