In a recent shocking new scientific breakthrough, eight fetal lambs recently spent four weeks inside artificial wombs – and by all measures, seem to have developed naturally.
Notes Alan Flake, fetal surgeon at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital and lead author of the study, there are tremendous possibilities for a world in which artificial wombs can help babies develop, eliminating some of the risks of pregnancy.
He also cautions, however, that it’s important we not get ahead of ourselves, either. “It’s complete science fiction to think that you can take an embryo and get it through the early developmental process and put it on our machine without the mother being the critical element there,” he says.
Instead, he notes, the point of using the external womb, which he and his team have coined the Biobag, would first be to help premature infants have another chance to continue developing.
Flake’s team, whose results were published in the journal Nature Communications, note that while the Biobag may not look like much – like oversized ziploc bags, really – it contains the same key parts a human womb would: The bag acts as a uterus would, protecting the fetal lamb from the outside world; an electrolyte solution that acts as amniotic fluid; and tubes that help the fetus both circulate blood and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.
Flake hopes the Biobag will improve the care options for extremely premature infants, who have “well documented, dismal outcomes,” he says. Prematurity is the leading cause of death for newborns. In the US, about 10 percent of babies are born prematurely — which means they were born before they reach 37 weeks of pregnancy. About 6 percent, or 30,000 of those births, are considered extremely premature, which means that they were born at or before the 28th week of pregnancy.
These premature infants require intense care, and even then, many of the babies – up to 50%, depending on how premature they are – may still suffer from a wide range of health issues arising from their stunted organ development.
That’s why scientists such as Flake have worked for decades to create a more natural environment in which premature infants could continue developing.
The new Biobag system is promising, in that it addresses several previous problems, both of circulation (previous pump systems proved too powerful for infants’ still developing hearts) and infection (which the artificial amniotic fluid seems to address).
While the early results with lambs are of course quite promising, Flake cautions that lambs are obviously not the same as humans.
“I think it’s realistic to think about three years for first-in-human trials,” Flake says.