New Delhi: American researchers are working to create an artificial womb-like environment that will save extremely pre-mature babies, whose organs aren’t fully developed. If these researchers from Philadelphia succeed, it could save lives of millions of pre-mature babies that die soon after birth each year around the world.
Currently, an animal trial is ongoing.
In babies that are extremely pre-mature – younger than 26 weeks – survival is difficult and even if they do survive, their quality of life is heavily compromised.
“Usually, we would try to prolong the pregnancy when the foetus is only 20 – 24 weeks. But, in case a surgery is unavoidable because of extreme complications, we can try and save 20-week old babies, but they have to be above 500 gms. Otherwise the pregnancy is not viable,” said Dr Nutan Agarwal, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).
And, even the babies that do survive there is a high chance of lifelong disability because of chronic lung disease and other complications of organ immaturity.
As estimated 20% of all neonatal deaths are attributed to prematurity.
The device, which is being tested on baby lambs, uses a fluid-filled container that is temperature-controlled and near-sterile to help the foetuses grow in womb like conditions. In fact, the babies breathe in amniotic fluid, just like they do in the mother’s womb.
The doctors from Children’s Hospital of Philedelphia, have attached the external gas exchange machine to the umbilical cord of the baby, instead of attaching it to the carotid, the arteries that supply blood to the head and neck. This substitutes for the mother’s placenta and emulates the conditions in the womb.
There is no external pump for circulation, because even gentle artificial pressure can fatally overload an underdeveloped heart, and there is no ventilator, because the immature lungs are not ready to breathe in atmospheric oxygen.
Previous researches using pumpless systems have achieved a maximum duration of 60 hours, and the animals sustained brain damage. This system, in contrast, has operated up to 670 hours (28 days) with some animals, which remained healthy. The lambs showed normal breathing and swallowing, opened their eyes, grew wool, became more active, and had normal growth, neurological function and organ maturation.
“It is just in the animal trial phase, but this artificial womb-like structure can be developed and can be marketed as a dependable technology, it may do more than just keeping pre-mature babies healthy. It may be used for surrogacy. But that is decades away,” said Dr Agarwal.
The study was published in the current issue of Nature.