Sat | Jan 20, 2018

Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

Published:Wednesday | April 26, 2017 | 12:00 AM
In this drawing provided by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, an illustration of a fluid-filled incubation system mimics a mother’s womb, in hopes of one day improving survival of extremely premature babies.


Researchers are creating an artificial womb to improve care for extremely premature babies and remarkable animal testing suggests the first-of-its-kind watery incubation so closely mimics mom that it just might work.

Today, premature infants weighing as little as a pound are hooked to ventilators and other machines inside incubators. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is aiming for a gentler solution, to give the tiniest preemies a few more weeks cocooned in a womb-like environment treating them more like foetuses than newborns in hopes of giving them a better chance of a healthy survival.

The researchers created a fluid-filled transparent container to simulate how foetuses float in amniotic fluid inside mom's uterus, and attached it to a mechanical placenta that keeps blood oxygenated.

In early-stage animal testing, extremely premature lambs grew, apparently normally, inside the system for three to four weeks, the team reported yesterday.

"We start with a tiny foetus that is pretty inert and spends most of its time sleeping. Over four weeks we see that foetus open its eyes, grow wool, breathe, swim," said Dr Emily Partridge, a CHOP research fellow and first author of the study published in Nature Communications.

"It's hard to describe actually how uniquely awe-inspiring it is to see," she added in an interview.

Human testing still is three to five years away, although the team already is in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration.

"We're trying to extend normal gestation," said Dr Alan Flake, a foetal surgeon at CHOP who is leading the project and considers it a temporary bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world.