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Researchers Have Successfully Grown Premature Lambs in an Artificial Womb

Researchers have shown it's possible to nurture and protect lambs in late stages of gestation inside an artificial womb; technology which could become a lifesaver for many premature human babies in just a few years. Babies born at or before 25 weeks have quite low survival outcomes, and in the US it is the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity.

With an artificial womb the babies can continue developing even just a few weeks extra 'growing time' can be the difference between severe health problems and a relatively healthy baby. "These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world," says Alan Flake, senior researcher for the study and a foetal surgeon at the CHOP. "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." The researchers took eight lambs between 105 to 120 days gestation (the physiological equivalent of 23 to 24 weeks in humans) and placed them inside the artificial womb.

The womb itself, a sealed and sterile bag, is filled with an electrolyte solution which acts like amniotic fluid in the uterus. The lamb's own heart pumps the blood through the umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag. And at least on the lambs in this study, the artificial womb worked – after just four weeks the lambs' brains and lungs had matured. They had also grown wool and could wiggle, open their eyes, and swallow.

"They've had normal growth. They've had normal lung maturation. They've had normal brain maturation. They've had normal development in every way that we can measure it. Lamb umbilical vessels may not function the same way as human babies do and lambs are also significantly larger than fetuses at that stage of development. Nevertheless, if all goes well, the researchers hope to test the device on premature humans within three to five years.


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