Modern medicine doesn’t yet have a great handle on caring for such extreme preemies.
That could change in the coming decade. As outlined in a preclinicalpublished Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, researchers at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have made great strides in creating an artificial womb for critically preterm babies that could allow them to continue developing naturally outside of their mother’s uteruses.
Currently, these babies — sometimes so small they fit comfortably in an adult human hand — are placed in incubators, where they are fed through tubes and delivered oxygen via ventilators.
The problem with this set-up, though, is they aren’t ready for gestation to end. In the womb, their mothers delivered oxygen via blood through their umbilical cords. If out of the womb, a breath of air stunts lung development.
“These infants are desperate for solutions and for innovation,” Partridge said. Desperately needed is a stopgap to help certain developments, such as lung development.
The team decided to focus on a new solution.
Rather than treat the preemies as if they were fully developed, ready to be in an open-air world, the team focused on recreating the actual environment of a human womb. It’s one in which the baby would be suspended in fluid and receive oxygen through its umbilical cord, rather than a breathing tube. This would allow gestation to continue for another month and potentially curb developmental problems.
“These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world,” said fetal surgeon and study leader Alan Flake. “If we can develop an extrauterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies.”
They developed an artificial womb — essentially a polyethylene bag filled with artificial amniotic fluid — that the child would immediately be placed into after being removed from its mother via C-section.
They would be given a drug to prevent them from breathing while being transported from their mother to the device, which “allows the fetus to swallow and breath amniotic fluid, like it’s supposed to during development,” Flake said.
This plastic bag, an artificial womb, could some day save extreme preemies – Washington Post