'Plastic bag' womb could help keep premature babies alive

But researchers have shown it's possible to nurture and protect lambs in late stages of gestation inside an artificial womb; technology which could become a lifesaver for many premature human babies in just a few years.

Premature infants weighing as little as a pound are hooked to ventilators and other machines inside incubators, so their lungs can more fully develop.

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.

If the Food and Drug Administration trials go ahead it could be another three to five years before the devices - assuming they are proven safe and effective for newborns - are in use, Flake said.

This artificial womb was originally created to sustain lamb fetuses - which previous research indicated are good models for human fetal development - by recreating the uterus of a pregnant animal.

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Flake adds this level of extreme prematurity is the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity in the U.S., accounting for one-third of all infant deaths and one-half of all cases of cerebral palsy attributed to prematurity.

The team noted that they can now make more than 300 gallons of the artificial amniotic fluid per day, which is mostly made up of water and several different salts. A machine outside the bag is attached to the umbilical cord to function like a placenta, providing nutrition and oxygen to the blood and removing carbon dioxide.

-The lamb's heart circulates the blood, without the need for any other pump.

Extreme prematurity is the leading cause of infant morbidity and mortality, attributed to more than one-third of all infant deaths and one-half of cerebral palsy.

The team reports that the lambs' lungs and other organs developed as though they were in their mother's womb, an important improvement over the incubators and ventilators now used to keep preemies alive.

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The artificial womb mimics a mother's uterus, allowing the foetus to continue breathing oxygen-filled liquid in the same way it does inside mothers womb. As far as results are concerned, Dr. Davey said that the womb had been tested on two premature born lambs.

The good news is when the lambs were removed from the Biobag and placed on a regular ventilator like a premature human baby, their health was almost as good as lambs of the same age that had been delivered via cesarean section.

Electronic monitors were used to measure vital signs as well as blood flow and other vital functions of the lambs. The growing fetus inhales and swallows the fluid, similar to what happens in a natural womb.

The study did not address long-term development. Inside of the womb, they placed a premature lamb fetus. One was bottle-weaned and is now more than a year old, apparently healthy and living on a farm in Pennsylvania.

"What they've got is a system where the fetus is really existing very much as it would in the mother's womb", Anna David of University College London who was not involved in the study told Science. After 28 days, their lungs had matured and they were then released in normal environment so that they could breathe, which happened as expected.

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