Scientists Are Close to Developing an Artificial Womb for Premature Babies
Prematurity is one of the most dangerous situations that any baby can face. In the US, the CDC has found that despite a small decrease in preterm birth rates from 2007-2014, the rates of preterm births have actually been increasing since then. In fact, in the developed world, prematurity is the #1 cause of death for babies.
Premature births, which are any births that occur before a baby is 37 weeks old, carry many different medical complications and risks for the baby, including:
- Trouble gaining weight
- Trouble regulating their temperature
- Feeding issues
- Breathing difficulties
- Developmental delays
- Lung problems
- Brain bleeds
Despite how much we know about premature births and preterm labor, and despite all of our technological advances, prematurity is still one of the biggest threats to babies in the U.S. And due in part to assisted reproductive technology (such as IVF) which have increased rates of birth in older mothers and have increased rates of multiples, which carry an increased risk of preterm labor, the rates of premature labor and births aren't expected to drop drastically anytime soon in the U.S.
Knowing this, scientists and doctors have been working hard to do everything they can to try to come up with new solutions that could help premature babies. And now, a team from Philadelphia is claiming that they are close to developing an artificial womb that babies could spend time in to finish developing if they are born too early.
The womb, which is currently being used in an animal trial, would be helpful for super preemie babies, who are born around or before 26 weeks and have very limited chances of survival and/or may face significant health challenges if they do survive. The womb basically looks like a fluid-filled sac. It has elaborate gas exchanges to help mimic the placenta and no pump that could damage the baby's heart. The womb is a closed circuit, which means the fetus will continue to operate on the closed blood system that happens in the womb, allowing the lungs to remain fluid-filled and not start breathing. This helps the lungs have more time to develop, just like they would in the womb.
The scientists demonstrated the baby lambs used in the trial were able to successfully stay in the womb for up to four weeks and while that may not sound like a lot of time, in the world of fetal development, even a day can make a difference between life and death. In the study, they admitted there is a lot that still needs to be figured out and even though it's not a perfect system, it's still a better alternative than some of the methods currently used on premature babies of this age in hospitals.
Although the study is hoping the womb works in the lamb trial, we probably have a long time before the same technology can be applied to humans. But it's a promising start and a chance for a future family to hopefully have a better chance against the odds.
Do you think there will be artificial wombs in our future?