Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

Hope for preemies as artificial womb helps tiny lambs grow

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

In the U.S. study, six premature lambs were used to test the most recent version of the device, which was originally designed as a glass tank, remaining in the "womb" for up to one month.

The approach might one day help nurture and protect premature babies outside the uterus, providing a better chance for survival and eliminating the health risk of pregnancy.

Researchers in Philadelphia have successfully gestated premature lambs in sealed plastic bags outside the womb, giving some hope for critically premature human babies (and their parents) at some point in the future.

"They appear to have normal development in all respects", says study leader Alan Flake at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. After 28 days, their lungs had matured and they were then released in normal environment so that they could breathe, which happened as expected. They've had normal brain maturation.

If successful, Dr Flake says they could be in use by humans in a decade; aside from the obvious medical benefits, he says it could also save the United States health system $4b a year in medical costs.

She noted that human testing is still three to five years away, although the researchers are already in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration.

"Currently, there's no way to support these infants without those associated problems", said Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at CHOP and co-inventor of the device. This artificial womb could eventually give them an extra few weeks to develop. Experts created amniotic fluid in their lab made it flow in and out of the bag.

The technology was developed with fetal lambs grown in a temperature-controlled, near-sterile environment, breathing artificial amniotic fluid, their hearts pumping blood through their umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag, CHOP explains. However, most premature babies that survive develop chronic lung disease or other complications of organ immaturity, especially if they were born before 28 weeks.

An "artificial womb" has been developed that could soon be used to keep extremely premature babies alive.

The story Researchers ideal an artificial womb that works as well as ewe do first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

They were kept there for four weeks, after which some were "born", removed from the bags and weaned on bottles. While tests have not started on humans as of yet, Mychaliska has tested the technology on prematurely born lambs.

One major change the researchers said they need to make to their device for human trials is to downsize it, because extremelypremature human infants are about one-third the size of the lambs used in the study.

However, Dr Flake says they won't be extending the procedure to infants younger than 23 weeks because the risks are "unacceptably high".

Those pushing the limits of viability-22 to 23 weeks-typically weigh only about a pound and have less than a 50 percent chance of survival. "One month is very impressive, and the data behind that is strong", Mychaliska says, but adds that what works for lambs might not work as well for human babies.

The whole system, which mimics the intra-uterine environment as closely as possible, was tested on extremely premature lambs (the biological equivalent of human babies born at 23-24 weeks of gestation).

"This is real tomorrow's world stuff", University of College London neonatal medicine professor Neil Marlow, who wasn't involved in the study, told The Guardian.

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