"People pursued it for about 60 years experimentally but we were able to do what others haven't been able to do and some of that is related to technology", said the fetal surgeon, who is director of the Center for Fetal Research at the Philadelphia hospital. The tests took place on fetal lambs which have lungs that resemble those of human beings. The team created a fluid-filled transparent container to simulate the maternal womb, as babies float around in amniotic fluid inside their mom's uterus.
A low-resistance oxygenator is the device that exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide as blood flows through it. The growing fetus inhales and swallows the fluid, similar to what happens in a natural womb.
"This is still pre-clinical or experimental data, but the research group in Philadelphia have managed to overcome numerous limitations others have had in supporting a baby or foetus with womb-like conditions", he said.
A few more experiments followed where lambs were allowed to survive and were bottle-fed by the experimenting team. By using the umbilical cord to transmit oxygen, the Biobag would eliminate the need for ventilators, which can easily damage fragile lungs, and allow for a baby's other organs to mature until they're capable of breathing on their own.
The results of their study are published in Nature Communications. Knowing this, we do not know any long term effects of being grown in an artificial womb but no doubt this will be something the researches will be taking into consideration.
"And there are some unpublished reports that these animals have been progressing normally after they've so-called "delivered" them at the end of their experience".
"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world", Flake said.
Can It Be Used On Humans?
Around 30,000 babies are born prematurely in the United States each year and many suffer for the rest of their lives as a result.
The system also does not require tubing be placed in the placenta and this minimizes umbilical spasms that can take place when the baby is born, Flake said.
"With that we would have normal physiologic development and avoid essentially all the major risks of prematurity - and that would translate into a huge impact on pediatric health". And they hope that the system can one day be used to help preterm human babies born as early as 23 to 25 weeks of gestation.
Other researchers praised the advance, saying it could help thousands of babies born very prematurely each year, if tests in humans were to prove successful.
Some of the lambs from the study were euthanized to study their organs, and the team found that they all had the normal size and shape for their gestational age. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants", Flake said in a statement.
The device is simpler than previous attempts at creating an artificial womb, which have not yet panned out.