Science is giving preterm babies a fighting chance with an incredible, artificial womb.
About 8% of babies in Australia are born prematurely. That means they’re delivered before 37 weeks. The majority of these babies are born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation.
These premmies typically have developed enough to do fairly well after delivery. Beyond that, the children often grow up to be completely healthy with very few problems. But, that’s not the case for every premature baby.
Babies born before 26 weeks gestation are serious risk for lasting health problems. That is, if they survive. Even though there are treatments to delay labour, they don’t always work. When a baby is born too early to survive on her own, its NICU time. These babies often need help breathing and may suffer from lung disease, feeding difficulties, temperature control difficulties and a slowing heartrate.
Hmm. If it seems like these very young premmies have problems that result from not being in mum’s womb, you aren’t wrong. And, that’s why researchers are trying to develop an artificial womb. Keeping baby safe, the artificial womb would let the preemie grow in a somewhat natural environment. That is, if you count a fluid-filled plastic sac a natural environment.
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, in the U.S., are working on an artificial womb that would let premature babies float in amniotic fluid. Okay, not mum’s amniotic fluid. But, a synthetic version that works in much the same way. Instead of feeding tubes and breathing machines, the baby is attached to a mechanical placenta. Between the synthetic amniotic fluid and mechanical placenta, the baby is able to feel comfy while her blood is oxygenated.
So far the research is still in the early stages. The artificial womb has only been tested with a premature lamb. According to the research (which was published in the journal Nature Communications), the lambs were kept alive in the artificial womb for up to four weeks. Not only were they kept alive, they thrived. The mechanical placenta kept their blood oxygenated and the lambs were actually able to grow. Their lungs matured and they showed brain growth.
The study researchers are hopeful that they’ll be able to start human trials in a year or two. Of course, the present study only looked at the short-term effects on the lambs. No one knows what the possible ling-term consequences are for the lambs – or for humans for that matter.
Even though the artificial womb isn’t anywhere near being ready for human use, it’s a step (a major step) in the right direction!