Quirks & Quarks

'Shockingly successful' artificial womb could save thousands of infant lives

Researchers created a fluid-filled container and attached it to a mechanical placenta that keeps blood oxygenated.
Researchers tested their artificial womb or biobag in tests on premature lambs. (Nature Communications)

Every year in North America, an estimated 30,000 babies are born critically premature. Now researchers in the U.S. have tested a biobag that mimics the maternal womb to prevent permanent organ damage. 

Because their organs are not yet fully developed, premature babies can't survive outside their mother's womb. Many of them die after delivery. Some that survive suffer permanent organ damage from their premature birth. 

Dr. Emily Partridge has been trying to solve this problem. She's a fellow at the division of general, thoracic and fetal surgery of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Earlier this year, she and her research team tested their biobag solution. In tests on premature lambs, it was amazingly successful. Partridge believes the same device could one day be used to save human babies. 

What is it about the uterus environment that allows infants to survive? 

Amniotic fluid that the infants are submerged in protects them from light, sound and stimulation. It's dark and sterile, which protects them from infection. Infants swallow and breathe the fluid which helps the lungs to develop. Stretching provides exercise.

What are the essential components of the artificial womb?

The basic elements of the artificial womb are a fluidic incubator that mimics the internal fluid environment to keep the baby submerged in fluid the way it would be in utero. Synthetic amniotic fluid was created with a balanced salt solution after researching what constitutes amniotic fluid. 

It also needs a gas exchange with the device to circulate oxygen and carbon dioxide, a task usually performed by the placenta. Other equipment was there to control the temperature, etc.

How successful was the device when used on premature lambs?

Partridge says it was shockingly successful. There had been previous efforts to create an artificial placenta and that had not met with great initial success and weren't practical. Even in pilot studies, the lambs in their device thrived and grew without much maintenance needed. 

How do these results compare to previous attempts?

Previous publications that attempted this kind of device had reported anywhere from four to 24 hours of growth. And the animals had required a lot of artificial support to be maintained. They had to give drugs to raise the heart rate to keep the animal alive, but in this system, they didn't have to offer the lambs any artificial support. 

How likely is the technology to work on human babies?

Doctors think it's going to be quite likely since the preclinical lamb data was so promising. At this point, researchers don't foresee any limitations or concerns about how it's going to translate. They feel ready to move on the next phase to start a properly controlled human clinical trial and the timeline they've been given by the FDA is somewhere in the next two to four years.