Every year about 30,000 babies in the United States are born prior to 26 weeks out of the normal 37-week gestation process, meaning they are critically premature. In preemies born prior to 24 weeks, only about 50% survive, and those who survive are likely to face long-term medical complications. Medical researchers are working on developing an artificial womb filled with lab-made amniotic fluid combined with an artificial placenta, that could help premature babies get to a healthy size and finish developing their organs before being born.
Toward that goal, a research team from the University of Western Australia, Australia’s Women and Infants Research Foundation and Tohoku University Hospital in Japan has created a device that mimics a pregnant mammal’s womb. Researchers in Philadelphia (video below) were the first to test the device earlier this year. In this second study published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, a second set of fetal lambs, a close animal model for human fetuses, successfully grew in the device for one week.
In the latest study, fetal lambs at a level of development comparable to a 23-week-old human fetus were placed in the custom-made wombs named ‘ex-vivo uterine environment’ or nickname Eve, for one week to test how they responded and developed in that environment. The lambs showed significant growth in the sterile, artificial womb environment, according to the study. The lambs were born healthy from the womb with no signs of brain damage. Ultimately, the hope is to test this on humans someday.
“We now have a much better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and although significant development is required, a life support system based around EVE therapy may provide an avenue to improve outcomes for extremely preterm infants,” lead researcher Matt Kemp said in a press release.