Following a successful study involving unborn lambs, scientists at the Center for fetal Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia plan to test an ‘artificial womb’ in humans in an effort to save the lives of extremely premature babies. The foetal lambs at an age equivalent to 23 weeks in humans were able to develop in a plastic bag filled with artificial amniotic fluid.
According to Pregnancy research charity Tommy’s, babies born at 23 weeks of pregnancy only have a 15% chance of survival. Weighing less than 600 grams, there is a high risk of lifelong disability for the few that do survive, who have a 90% probability of developing chronic lung disease and other complication resulting from being born with immature organs. At 24 weeks, the survival chance rises to 55% and again to 80% at 25 weeks. This just goes to show what a huge difference a few more weeks in the womb can make.
Incubators help keep premature babies warm but the new invention works by closely replicating the conditions in the real womb. “This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability,” said Dr Alan Flake, the Centre’s director.
At that early age, the infants have an urgent need for a bridge between their mother’s womb and the outside world. An extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for just a few more weeks dramatically improves the outcomes of the premature babies.
|Courtesy: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia|
Inside the device, which is connected to an external gas exchange machine that takes the place of a placenta, is synthetic nutrient-rich amniotic fluid that sustains the foetus. The infants heart circulates blood through the umblical cord into gas exchange machine while the amniotic fluid flows in and out of a temperature -controlled, near-sterile ‘biobag’. No mechanical pump is used as even the gentlest of artificial pressure can fatally overload an underdeveloped heart.
Dr Flake was however quick to state that there is no technology “even on the horizon” that could replace a mother’s womb at the earliest stages of foetal development.
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