Published: Fri, April 28, 2017
Medical | By Dorothy Lyons

A Fluid-Filled Artificial Womb May Help Premature Babies, Say Experts

The researchers placed extremely premature fetuses into the Biobag, which is made of clear polyethylene and filled with a substance that mimics amniotic fluid, in order to help them survive long enough for their lungs to develop more.

"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world", said Alan Flake, MD, director of the Center for Fetal Research at CHOP.

Extremely premature babies could be kept alive in future using an "artificial womb" that scientists plan to test in humans after a successful study involving unborn lambs. The device consists of three essential components: a polyethylene film that acts like the womb protecting the infant from the outside environment; an electrolyte solution which is similar to the amniotic fluid in the womb; and a system to circulate blood and supply oxygen. At the beginning of their experiment, the tiny lambs were at the biological equivalent of premature babies in the 23 to 24 week gestation stage. Complications along the way included issues with sepsis, lambs not surviving delivery and poor oxygenation.

The full details of the discovery were in Nature Communications.

The research team at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia call the system the "biobag".

"And there are some unpublished reports that these animals have been progressing normally after they've so-called "delivered" them at the end of their experience".

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Among the reasons that the fluid environment is important is that it gives premature babies' lungs a chance to mature before they have to contend with the same environment as everyone else, the researchers said. The results indicated normal development of the fetus in every respect. This is to provide the proper nutrition to the premature baby.

The team is reportedly in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and predicts babies could be incubated in the system within three years of the first clinical trial, The Guardian reports. Then all but one, which was able to breathe on its own, were euthanized due to "animal protocol limitations rather than any instability", allowing the scientists to look at their organs.

The device is simpler than previous attempts at creating an artificial womb, which have not yet panned out. By closely replicating the womb environment, the researchers hope they can create an environment to allow babies born as early as at 23 weeks of gestation to continue developing as they would until 28 weeks, when the medical risks become less severe.

"This will require a lot of additional preclinical research and development and this treatment will not enter the clinic any time soon", Colin Duncan of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, who was not involved in the research told BBC News.

He acknowledged that parents might question the approach, but notes that the premies always could be whisked into standard care if they fared poorly in the new system.

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