Due to a number of different reasons, millions of babies around the world are born premature. In the U.S. alone, the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 10% of babies are born premature.
A baby is considered premature or preterm if he/she is born before 37 weeks. An extremely preterm baby is less than 28 weeks old while a very preterm baby is 28 – 32 weeks old. Meanwhile, a moderate to late preterm baby is 32 – 37 weeks old. In any of these cases, the infant becomes susceptible to a number of undesirable health conditions because their organs are not yet fully developed. In the extreme scenario, premature birth causes infant death. And generally, the earlier the baby is born, the graver the risks.
Currently, premature babies are incubated to increase their chances of survival. Unfortunately, while an incubator can help keep a preterm baby alive, it can also cause serious and permanent damage. The good news is, there’s new hope for parents whose babies are born prematurely.
As reported by a research team at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) in Pennsylvania led by fetal and pediatric surgeon Alan Flake, they have developed an artificial womb they’re calling a ‘biobag’ which can one day sustain preterm babies, minus the negative effects that an incubator can cause.
The biobag is technically a plastic bag filled with a special fluid designed to replicate the conditions inside a uterus. Ideally, preterm babies can spend a few weeks inside the biobag, with tubes from their umbilical cord connected to an external device that would provide oxygen to their blood and supply them with nutrients. After a certain period, the baby would be taken out of the bag, then hooked up to a ventilator to help him/her breathe until he/she has developed sufficiently to breathe on his/her own.
To be clear, the team’s biobag has not yet been tested on humans, only on premature lambs. For their experiment, eight lambs aged 105 -120 days were placed in the biobags (in human babies, that’s equivalent to about 23 weeks). The lambs stayed in the biobags for four weeks, continuing with their development until they turned from hairless pink fetuses into white newborns with fleece.
After the ‘incubation’ period, the lambs were hooked up to a regular ventilator, (similar with what’s being done with premature human babies) until they could breathe on their own. When they reached that point, they were taken off the ventilator, euthanized, then examined. As it turned out, all of the lambs except for one appeared to have developed normally.
The results of the experiment show the biobag’s promising potential to provide the support needed by preterm babies to survive and thrive. But the team is quick to point out that it’s going to require much more research before human clinical trials can be safely done. They are looking at a time-frame of about three years.
In the meantime, they have patented the device and are currently in the process of consulting with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) so they can plan for preclinical animal trials, prior to actual human trials.
The team would also like to make it clear that the purpose of the biobag is to support premature babies, not to enable an entire pregnancy to take place externally.
The study was recently published in the journal Nature Communications.