A group of clinicians and researchers in the US has taken a big leap toward developing an artificial womb for humans—by building and testing one designed to keep very premature lambs alive outside the bodies of their mothers.
The immediate goal is to develop a human-ready version of these "biobags" to provide desperately-needed help to the 30,000 pre-term babies born in the US every year, according to the researchers, who addressed the media in a phone conference on Monday. The statistics are grim for these preemies, babies who are born before 23 weeks: among this group, morbidity and mortality rates are high, and negative health effects can last into adulthood.
Incubators currently used to keep premature infants alive in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) swaddle them in nothing but air—unlike the warm, saline-like amniotic fluid that bathes them in utero. This fluid is crucial in warding off infections.
In addition, having babies breathe air instead of fluid can impede the development of lung tissue. Pre-term babies have higher rates of lifetime lung function loss due to factors like these.
Taking a cue from nature, Alan Flake, a researcher and neonatal surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, worked with his team to create a new type of incubator—one that mimics the fluid-filled interior of the mother's womb while still maintaining a connection to the outside world.
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