The 'plastic bag' womb that could save lives

The 'plastic bag' womb that could save lives
The 'plastic bag' womb that could save lives
Author

27 April, 2017

"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.

Flake says his team has no interest in trying to gestate a fetus any earlier than about 23 weeks into pregnancy.

Though it could take another decade for the device to take a shape of reality, experts hope to procure licence for the device that could be used to support highly premature babies.

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. The fetal lambs breathed amniotic fluid as they normally do in the womb in a temperature-controlled, near sterile environment that is insulated from variations in temperature, pressure, light and hazardous infections.

In answer to all these concerns, Flake points out the ethical concerns should be balanced against the risk of death and severe disabilities faced by extremely premature infants.

Researchers are tackling infant mortality in premature infants with a new system that mimics the conditions of the womb. He noted that the lamb being tested with the artificial womb had developed normally. After four weeks, they were put onto a regular ventilator, where researchers observed almost ideal health conditions. The average human gestation period is 40 weeks.

So far, the results are extremely promising. It allows them a few weeks' margin to develop their organs to sufficient maturity to be able to come out of the artificial womb alive and well.

It all works together so that blood flows to and from the fetus, through a gas-exchange interface similar to what would occur across a placenta, while the fetus remains in a stable fluid environment. In both systems, infants breathe a simulated amniotic fluid, but in MI, they're not immersed in a bag of fluid.

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The system was comprised of a few main factors to support stable development: a circulatory system, a closed fluid environment and use of the fetus' own heart to pump blood around the system - not an external pump.

"The whole idea is to support normal development; to re-create everything that the mother does in every way that we can to support normal fetal development and maturation", Flake says.

How would society change with an artificial womb?

The study didn't address long-term development.

A lamb encases in an artificial womb, with drawing explaining the science.

Hospitals attempt to save extremely premature babies, including those born before 26 weeks gestation and even babies born between 22 and 23 weeks of gestation.

The team plans to continue developing and testing the system and will eventually need to downsize it for humans, which are around one third the size of the lambs used in the study. And while he said further adaptation of the device is needed before it can begin human testing, he envisioned parents being able to see the baby and even piping in the sound of mom's heartbeat.

"We're in the process of interacting with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] so it's not inconceivable that we could be talking about a clinical trial in one to two years from now", said Dr.


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