In a first for the scientific world, scientists have succeeded in replicating a womb, outside of a living, breathing mammal. The thrilling development spells hope to save the hundreds of extremely premature babies born every year.
The ‘artificial womb’ was the culmination of efforts put in by researchers, led by Dr Alan Flake, at the Centre for Foetal Research at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Scientists have been trying to develop a system similar to this since years, without much success. However, this time the researchers have hit pay dirt.
The efficacy of the ‘womb’ was tested with eight very premature foetal lambs that were confined to the zip-lock sized bags, created to mimic the environment in a mammal womb. Foetal lambs develop in much the same way as human foetuses and therefore are perfect for understanding human foetal development.
The lamb foetuses not only survived, but also went through normal development for the four weeks that they were kept in the device.
“They’ve had normal growth. They’ve had normal lung maturation. They’ve had normal brain maturation. They’ve had normal development in every way that we can measure it,” Flake says.
The womb was created using a clear polythene bag flooded with synthetic amniotic fluid. The other important part- the placenta- was created by attaching a machine outside the bag to the umbilical cord. This machine performed the vital functions of providing nutrition and oxygen to the blood and removing carbon dioxide, just like a placenta does.
The device was placed in a dark, warm room, where the sounds of the mother’s heartbeats were constantly being played for the lambs. The foetal lambs were regularly monitored using ultrasound.
During the four weeks of stay, the foetuses could be seen opening their eyes, growing wool, breathing, swimming and doing everything that a foetus developing in a real womb would do.
The researching team plans to test the device on extremely premature human foetuses within three to five years. If successful, the artificial womb would give extremely premature babies a shot at being alive and healthy.
A normal pregnancy lasts 40 weeks. Babies born at 22-24 weeks gestational age are considered extremely premature and have only a 50% or lower chance of surviving. And even if they miraculously survive, they have to grapple with severe life-long disabilities and complications such as blindness, deafness, brain and lung abnormalities, cerebral palsy, mental retardation etc.
The artificial womb would give such preemies a chance of another four to six weeks of developing normally in the womb-like device that seamlessly simulates their mother’s womb.
The breakthrough is a technological marvel that has the potential to revolutionize neonatal care and take us a step further in saving the thousands of babies lost to premature deliveries every year.