Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Medical | By Sammy Miller

Artificial 'biobag' womb for extremely premature newborns in testing

Artificial 'biobag' womb for extremely premature newborns in testing

Just as the fetus is surrounded by the amniotic liquid inside the mom's uterus, the plastic bag-like womb is filled with a liquid which has the same physiological properties as its biological counterpart.

"This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can now do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability", Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who led the study, said in a press statement.

"Fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to four weeks", the researchers state. In human terms, that amount of time would allow some of the most premature babies to continue to develop as if they were still in the womb for long enough to escape the high-risk period for the worst complications. In animal testing, fetal lambs grew for up to four weeks inside a bag filled with a substitute for amniotic fluid, while the heart pumped blood into a machine attached to the umbilical cord that supplied oxygen like a placenta normally would. They all appeared to grow normally, without any significant changes in their blood pressure and other important health measures.

The researchers plan on continuing to evaluate and refine the system, as well as downsize it for humans, who are about one-third the size of infant lambs.

Scientists say the technology can be used to keep more premature babies alive.

A handout photo released on April 25, 2017 by Nature Communications and made available by Children's Hospital of Philadelphia showing a lamb (left) at 107 days of gestation, on the 4th day of support inside a Biobag, and the same lamb on the 28th day of support, illustrating growth and maturation (right) in Philadelphia.

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Children's Hospital researchers plan to do one more animal study, and to upgrade the Biobag with medical-grade plastics. Instead, they're created to help preterm babies develop normally if their mother's can't carry them for a full pregnancy.

A video further demonstrating the artificial womb's function is included below.

The team says that the process does not aim to replace mothers but only to find more feasible ways for life support for babies who are born too early.

Lambs were used due to their close genetic proximity to humans. Neonatal intensive care units around the world already do an incredible job of saving the lives of premature babies.

Babies younger than that haven't had time to develop lungs; they still rely on the umbilical cord to deliver oxygenated blood from their mothers.

"This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can now do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability", said Dr Alan Flake, the Centre's director. The team envisions developing a system that would be a radical departure from keeping preterm babies in artificially ventilated incubators.

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