This week researchers reported that eight fetal lambs survived and grew inside an artificial womb for four weeks. The results from this study found the lambs organs were able to develop normally, and they were able to move, open their eyes and even grow wool – comparable to the development that would be observed in a mother’s womb.
The premature lambs were placed into a temperature-controlled bag filled with a substitute for amniotic fluid. The lamb’s umbilical cord is then attached to a machine that exchanges carbon dioxide in blood with oxygen, similar to a placenta. This allows the lamb’s heart to circulate blood without the need for any other pump.
These findings have potentially important implications for extremely premature babies (less than 28 weeks old), as their lungs are often not sufficiently developed enough to breathe air. Many premature babies who survive go on to develop lung disease or cerebral palsy. An artificial womb could provide the opportunity to extend the normal gestation period for premature babies in an amniotic fluid-like environment until they are ready for post-natal life. This method would provide significant improvements over the incubators and ventilators that are currently the standard of care.
It will still be 3 to 5 years before this concept would be ready for human testing, however, these early results are quite promising and suggest a new, innovative technique is on the horizon.