An artificial womb tested on fetal lambs was found effective at allowing very premature fetuses to develop, offering hope for a device that may not only help boost the survival chances of babies born prematurely but may also reduce their odds for developmental problems.
Premature Births In The United States
About 30,000 babies born every year in the United States are critically preterm. Extreme prematurity is a common cause of infant mortality and health problems.
Preterm babies who usually weigh more than 600 grams only have between 30 and 50 percent likelihood to survive. Researchers estimate that if deaths linked to premature birth continue at current rates, 4.4 million children will die per year in 2030.
About 90 percent of those lucky enough to make it experience health-related problems which include chronic lung disease and those that arose because of poor organ development. Research, for instance, indicates an association between premature births and odds for developing mental illness.
Concerns Over Use Of Incubators And Ventilators For Preterm Babies
To date, the best that doctors can do for premature babies is to put them in an incubator and support the still-developing bodily functions. These current treatments, however, come with several disadvantages for tiny babies. Standard treatments, for instance can be tough on the lungs and the developing organs of preemies, and may possibly expose them to infectious pathogens.
"Conventional care involves supporting organ functions, intubation, mechanical respirations, and gas based ventilation of lungs," said Emily Partridge, from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania.
"Normally, lungs are submerged in fluid [in the womb], but gas-based methods impair lung development, causing lifelong health issues."
The artificial womb offers an alternative which can help prevent developmental problems in preterm babies since it simulates the condition in the mother's womb as close as possible.
Researchers used an artificial environment that uses the umbilical cord to produce an oxygen circuit. The lambs involved in the study were equivalent to human infants between 23- and 24-week gestation stage and appeared to develop normally.
Researchers said that the lungs and organs of the lambs developed as if they developed inside their mother's womb, an improvement over the ventilators and incubators that are currently used to keep preemies alive. One of the lambs is now one year old.
"They appear to have normal development in all respects," said Alan Flake, from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "We don't have an intelligence test for lambs, but we think they're pretty smart lambs."
Sustaining Preterm Human Babies In Artificial Womb
Although the study has been conducted on animals, there is hope that the procedure can be used for preterm human babies in the future. Flake, however, said that the artificial womb can only be an option for babies born via cesarean section.
As for the cost of sustaining a baby in an artificial womb, health experts said it would be more than enough offset for reducing the chances of long-term disability that currently costs healthcare systems billions of dollars annually.