'Biobag' system mimics womb, could provide hope for premature babies

Tabitha Dunn
April 28, 2017

The device acts as an artificial womb, and a "biobag" mimics the natural uterus that allows the development of a fetus.

Instead, the baby's heart pumps blood via the umbilical cord into the system's low-resistance external oxygenator that substitutes for the mother's placenta in exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Initially, this test has been done on prematurely born lambs and they have successfully grown in these artificial wombs.

The eight fetal lambs who were tested in the device showed normal development. "Over four weeks we see that fetus 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.

Hospitals are trying to develop technologies that can help premature babies born before 26 weeks survive.

"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist", Flake said. The idea is that extremely premature babies, lambs in this case, can be put into the bag which will take on the functions of a womb.

If the new device is successful in human trials, parents of babies delivered in preterm births might someday rely on an incubator that looks a bit like an aquarium.

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"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world".

The researchers say they're not aiming to extend viability earlier than the current mark of 23 weeks, as the goal is to help extreme preemies develop more normally and with fewer health issues.

With this new technology, doctors hope for a much greater chance of survival without developmental problems. "I think it's just an unbelievable thing to sit there and watch the fetus on this support acting like it normally acts in the womb". But for infants born around 22 or 23 weeks - the earliest a premature child can be expected to survive outside the womb - the new device presents a better solution than the incubators now in use in neonatal wards.

The device is simpler than previous attempts at creating an artificial womb, which haven't yet panned out. After a series of prototypes, it emerged as a solution for premature animal babies. Electronic monitors measured vital signs, blood flow and other crucial functions. Inside of the womb, they placed a premature lamb fetus.

Flake stressed that the womb-like system isn't meant to support preemies any younger than today's limits of viability - not what he calls the more "sensationalistic" idea of artificially growing embryos. For the last 50 years, scientists have attempted to create an artificial womb for growing babies.

"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist".

But, if you could find a way to replicate the womb outside the mother, perhaps extremely premature babies would have a better shot at a healthy childhood.

Other reports by Guamnewswatch

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