The device, which incorporates a plastic bag filled with artificial nutrient-rich amniotic fluid, has successfully been tested on foetal lambs equivalent in age to 23-week-old human infants. The artificial womb appears successful at enabling very premature fetuses to develop normally for about a month. But scientists have developed a new system that could potentially help premature babies born as early as 23 or 24 weeks: an artificial womb created to mimic the conditions inside a mother's uterus.
With the Biobag, the baby is able to pump its own blood through its umbilical cord and into a medical device called an oxygenator, which functions like a placenta, sending oxygenated blood back to the baby. Flake noted that the artificial womb is not intended for fetuses younger than 22 weeks, as it's not a method for artificially growing embryos.
Colin Duncan, a professor of reproductive medicine and science at the University of Edinburgh who was not involved in the research, told VICE News that the study was a "really attractive concept and this study is a very important step forward".
A few more experiments followed where lambs were allowed to survive and were bottle-fed by the experimenting team.
In the not-so-distant future, researchers believe that this technology when developed holds great promise for premature human babies born at or before 25 weeks.
The trials of this extra-uterine technology took place recently and the results were published in a scientific journal. The newest artificial womb is simpler than previous attempts developed by other researchers. There were five premature lambs that were tested on and all of them managed to grow perfectly healthy.
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Flake stressed that the womb-like system is not meant to support premies any younger than today's limits of viability - not what he calls the more "sensationalistic" idea of artificially growing embryos.
"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. It's going to take time before the external womb can be used on humans. Neonatal intensive care units around the world already do an incredible job of saving the lives of premature babies.
"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". Unlike conventional incubators, the biobag surrounds a premature baby with a liquid that is similar to the amniotic fluid that would encompass it naturally.
"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist".
"If it's a question of a baby dying versus a baby being born who then needs to live its entire life in an institution, then I don't think that's better".