The creators of this technology hope it will someday help extremely premature babies.
It’s like a scene from a Sci-Fi movie… except it’s not. It’s absolutely real.
Inside eight big bags filled with blood and fluid, lie eight fidgeting, twitching lamb fetuses. They have been growing in their artificial ‘wombs’ for weeks, developing much as they would inside their mother’s uterus.
Researchers are hoping that this technology when developed further could be used to help premature human babies survive and thrive outside of their mother’s womb.
This artificial womb is called a Biobag. It’s a plastic bag that is filled with fluid and mimics uterine conditions, even though it doesn’t look anything like the real thing.
The clear plastic acts like the uterine walls, protecting the lambs from outside elements. The fluid is an electrolyte solution that washes over the lamb as amniotic fluid would do. It also facilitates blood circulation for the fetus, as well as the exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen.
Alan Flake, who is a fetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and lead author of the study team that developed this device, says the point of developing an external womb such as the Biobag is not to replace human pregnancy in full.
Instead, he sees it eventually giving extremely premature babies a better chance at survival, even if they are born as early as 22 weeks into the pregnancy.
Currently, a baby born this early has an extremely low chance of survival (around 50%). What’s more, the technology used to sustain their life – a ventilator- may cause serious (and permanent) damage.
A ventilator works by pushing oxygen into the underdeveloped lungs of an extremely premature baby.
Dr. George Mychaliska, an American pediatric and fetal surgeon explains that even a few hours of this can damage a baby’s lungs forever. He says, “Our hands are tied, because in the absence of that, the baby would die. So we accept some lung damage to keep the baby alive.”
Furthermore, even if these little babies make it out of intensive care, they are at a greater risk for a lifetime of health conditions.
The Biobag certainly brings hope to tiny preemies and their parents. But we may have to wait a while. In the latest version of this experiment with the lambs, even though they had regular lung function after ‘birth’, similar to other lambs delivered normally, they didn’t survive for more than a few weeks.
Dr Flake says that human trials on this technology are at least three years away.
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