Biologists have long believed that a fetus needs a living uterus to develop. Maybe not anymore. A team of scientists has successfully grown a premature lamb in an artificial womb, according to a 2017 study.
The science and other stuff to know
A team of scientists led by Alan Flake, fetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, developed an external womb called Biobag. The scientists tested the setup for up to four weeks on eight fetal lambs that were 105 to 120 days into pregnancy — about equivalent to human infants at 22 to 24 weeks of gestation. After the four weeks were up, they were switched onto a regular ventilator like a premature baby in a neonatal intensive care unit. As per the study, which was published in the Nature Communications journal, the artificial womb was then filled with an electrolyte solution that acted like amniotic fluid and protected the fetus. The lamb’s own heart pumped the blood through umbilical cords into a gas exchange machine outside the Biobag.
After four weeks in the artificial womb, the lamb’s brain and lungs had matured. It had also grown wool and could wiggle, open its eyes, and even swallow.
The health of the lambs on the ventilator appeared to be nearly as good as that of a lamb of the same age who had recently been delivered by cesarean section. The lambs were then removed from the ventilator, and all but one, which had developed sufficiently to breathe on its own, were euthanized so that the researchers could examine their organs.
Their lungs and brains, which are the organ systems most prone to damage in premature infants, appeared to be unharmed and fully formed, as they should be in a lamb grown in a mother.
Babies born at or before 25 weeks have quite low survival outcomes, and it’s the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity. If human trials are successful, artificial wombs could one day help bring these premature babies to term outside the uterus.
“If you can just use this device as a bridge for the fetus then you can have a dramatic impact on the outcomes of extremely premature infants,” said Flake to NPR.org. “This would be a huge deal.”
Artificial wombs could also help scientists learn more about normal fetal development.
Since this study went public, artificial womb technology has evolved. Many scientists are now working to develop artificial wombs that can grow premature human babies. For instance, a team of scientists at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands was recently awarded a grant of 2.9 million euros to help create this futuristic innovation. Meanwhile, a team of researchers, from the Suzhou Institute of Biomedical Engineering and Technology in China, has also developed an AI system to look after embryos in an artificial womb.