Premature births are common, but current incubator methods of keeping these babies alive can be damaging. New research has found a way to keep lamb foetuses alive, using artificial wombs.

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By: Hayley Fryer

Were you born prematurely? Chances are, you know someone who was.

It’s estimated that around 15 million babies are born too early every year, which equates to around 1 in 10 people.

Although it could be termed relatively normal for babies to be premature, it is by no means safe.

If a baby is born before its due date, it has not had time to develop properly in the womb. As a result, these babies are often not well-equipped to deal with the outside world, and could have underdeveloped lung, or heart, structures.

Almost 1 million babies die every year from being born too early.

Humans are meant to carry their baby until 40 weeks. Statistics show that infants born between 22 and 24 weeks only have a 10% chance of survival, and premature birth is the most common cause of death in babies.

This is scary news for parents, as there is often little that can be done.

Incubators are currently used to support premature babies with bodily functions, such as breathing. These are very useful devices and have undoubtedly saved the lives of many babies born prematurely.

However, incubators aren’t perfect, and babies supported by these machines are often prone to infection, and the ventilation that aids breathing can cause lung damage.

Survivors of premature birth can often face a lifetime of issues, such as learning disabilities, and visual and hearing problems.

The perfect place for a baby to grow is inside the womb; it provides barriers to infection and the amniotic fluid contains nutrients and growth factors, which the foetus cannot get outside of the body.

Of course, once the baby has been born, it cannot be placed back into the mother’s womb.

Research by Emily Partridge and her team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute have developed an artificial womb system, which could support premature baby development better than conventional methods.

The Research

Partridge and her team removed premature lambs from their mother’s womb via C-section, and grew them in artificial wombs for 4 weeks.

baby2Photo taken from: Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

To examine the validity of their artificial womb system, the team removed lambs between 15 and 17 weeks old from their mother’s womb via C-section. A normal gestational period for sheep is 21 weeks. Therefore, these foetuses could mimic the responses of human premature babies.

Partridge and her team filled a plastic bag system with a fluid containing a careful balance of water and salts, to mimic the amniotic fluid.

These bags provide the foetuses with a sealed environment, which should protect them from infection.

The placenta, which supplies the foetus with nutrients and oxygen, has been mimicked by using an oxygenator device which has been connected to the umbilical cords of the foetus.

The lambs were kept in the bags for around four weeks. Of the lambs that were “born” and bottle-weaned, the team have noted normal development.

The Future

The team hope that in the next 3-5 years, human trials can begin.

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It is hoped that this research will help go toward making similar systems for human babies that have been born prematurely.

The plan is to develop a system which could help very premature babies, born at around week 24, reach a stage where their chances of survival are much higher.

Before a human trial could be done, the fine details of this machine need to be sorted out. For example, the team are currently looking at ways of making the bathing liquid more similar to the amniotic fluid.

This method would only be useful for around half of babies born prematurely, as it is only suitable for those delivered via C-section.

However, this study is hugely exciting, and paves the way for more innovative technology that could help support babies born prematurely, without the drawbacks of traditional methods such as incubators.


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