Premature babies face a large number of health problems due to underdeveloped organs and a fragile internal system. Doctors in neonatal intensive care have been working for years to come up with a way to copy how the womb works, in order to keep these infants alive.
Now, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia revealed that they have come up with a device that could save the lives of premature babies, ABC News reports. This device is a “biobag” that mimics the natural uterus, serving as an artificial womb that allows a fetus to come to full term.
Dr. Alan W. Flake,a fetal surgeon and director of the Center for Fetal Research at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), said, “These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world.” He explained,
If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies.
This device is currently in the animal testing phase, and needs further work before it can be approved for testing on human babies.
Infants who are severely premature, born between 23 and 25 weeks old, have very low chances of survival. They are prone to many complications, including lung and brain problems, largely due to the fact that their lungs, liver, kidney, and brain are not fully developed and are forced to work months earlier than usual.
The team at CHOP built multiple prototype devices, eventually coming up with the biobag design. It is filled with amniotic fluid, and has a machine attached that oxygenates blood via an umbilical cord. This is similar to how a fetus “breathes” in the womb. This device is kept in a highly controlled, sterile environment, with the infant immersed in the amniotic fluid.
An important part of this extra-uterine support device is its ability to sustain babies without a ventilator, as this can strain premature lungs. It also allows medical staff to monitor vital signs and blood flow, so that they can respond should changes occur.
Flake said, “This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability. This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants.”
The study was published in Nature Communications.