Ar­ti­fi­cial womb!

Woman's Era - - Short Story -

Re­searchers are cre­at­ing an ar­ti­fi­cial womb to im­prove care for ex­tremely pre­ma­ture babies – and re­mark­able an­i­mal test­ing sug­gests the first-of-its-kind watery in­cu­ba­tion so closely mim­ics mom that it just might work.

To­day, pre­ma­ture in­fants weigh­ing as lit­tle as half-a-kg are hooked to ven­ti­la­tors and other ma­chines inside in­cu­ba­tors. Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal of Philadel­phia, USA, is aim­ing for a gen­tler so­lu­tion, to give the tini­est pre­emies a few more weeks co­cooned in a womb-like en­vi­ron­ment – treat­ing them more like foe­tuses than new­borns in hopes of giv­ing them a bet­ter chance of sur­vival. The re­searchers cre­ated a fluid-filled trans­par­ent con­tainer to stim­u­late how foe­tuses float in am­ni­otic fluid inside mom’s uterus, and at­tached it to a me­chan­i­cal pla­centa that keeps blood oxy­genated. In earlystage an­i­mal test­ing, ex­tremely pre­ma­ture lambs grew, ap­par­ently nor­mally, inside the sys­tem for three-four weeks, the team re­ported on 25 April 2017.

“We start with a tiny foe­tus that is pretty in­ert and spends most of its time sleep­ing. Over four weeks we see that foe­tus opens its eyes, grows wool, breathes, swims,” said Dr Emily Par­tridge, a re­search fel­low at the hospi­tal and first au­thor of the study pub­lished in Na­ture Com­mu­ni­ca­tions. Hu­man test­ing is still three-five years away, al­though the team is al­ready in discussion with the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In­ter­est­ingly, hospi­tals at­tempt to save the most crit­i­cally pre­ma­ture in­fants, those born be­fore 26 weeks ges­ta­tion and even those right at the lim­its of vi­a­bil­ity – 22 to 23 weeks. Ex­treme pre­ma­tu­rity is a lead­ing cause of in­fant mor­tal­ity, and those who do sur­vive fre­quently have se­ri­ous dis­abil­i­ties such as cere­bral palsy.

“The idea of treat­ing pre­emies in fluid-like in­cu­ba­tors may sound strange, but phys­i­o­log­i­cally it makes sense,” says Dr Cather­ine Spong, an Amer­i­can foetal medicine spe­cial­ist. One of the big­gest risks for pre­emies is that their lungs aren’t ready to breathe air, she added. Be­fore birth, am­ni­otic fluid flows into their lungs, bring­ing growth fac­tors cru­cial for proper de­vel­op­ment. When they’re born too soon, doc­tors hook pre­emies to ven­ti­la­tors to keep them alive but risk­ing life­long lung dam­age. The re­searchers’ goal is for the womb­like sys­tem to sup­port the very youngest pre­emies.

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