Before birth, the amniotic fluid flows into the fetus's lungs, providing growth factors crucial for the proper development of the lugs.
"This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can now do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability", Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who led the study, said in a press statement.
The eight fetal lambs that were tested in the device seemed to develop as they normally would in womb, some even grew a little wool. In human terms, that amount of time would allow some of the most premature babies to continue to develop as if they were still in the womb for long enough to escape the high-risk period for the worst complications.
The researchers created a fluid-filled transparent container to simulate how fetuses float in amniotic fluid inside mom's uterus, and attached it to a mechanical placenta that keeps blood oxygenated.
The lambs remained in the "womb" for up to a month.
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In pre-clinical trials with lambs, experts were able to mimic the environment similar to the womb along with the functions of the placenta. The big question was: Would the lamb fetus survive?
This study wasn't created to replace a mother's natural womb, but the invention could one day help keep premature infants off ventilators and out of incubators when they are born.
The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia aims to give the tiniest preemies a few more weeks cocooned in a womb-like environment so their lungs have more time to develop.
Ultimately, an infant is considered premature when they are born before 37 weeks of development.
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"We're trying to extend normal gestation", said Dr. Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at CHOP who is leading the project and considers it a temporary bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world.
Pro-life campaigners are now calling for a review of the 24-week abortion limit, citing the increasing likelihood that a baby born before the abortion limit could be viable. After 28 days, their lungs had matured and they were then released in normal environment so that they could breathe, which happened as expected.
But, if you could find a way to replicate the womb outside the mother, perhaps extremely premature babies would have a better shot at a healthy childhood.
The team is making clear that the BioBag, which they estimate is roughly three years away from any sort of human trial, won't be a magic bullet, or open the door to pregnancy-free babies tomorrow. The researcher and his team noted that one of the most common causes of death is related to the newborn's lung being insufficiently developed.
"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist".
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