An artificial womb designed to support critically premature babies has been demonstrated successfully in animals for the first time, in an advance that could transform the lives of the most fragile newborns.
Lambs born at the equivalent of 23 weeks in a human pregnancy were kept alive and appeared to develop normally while floating inside the transparent, womb-like vessel for four weeks after birth. Doctors said that the pioneering approach could radically improve outcomes for babies born so early that they cannot breathe, feed or fight infection without medical help.
Alan Flake, a foetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and lead author, said the proposed system could act as an urgently needed bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world for babies born at between 23 to 28 weeks gestation.
“If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies,” he said.
The team is in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and predicts that babies could be incubated in the system within three years in the first clinical trial.
During the past decades, the limit of viability for premature babies has been steadily pushed back to about 23 weeks, but a high proportion of these babies still suffer severe and permanent health problems as a result of their early birth.