An artificial womb, tested on pre-natal lambs, could help extremely premature babies avoid death or disability  © AFP PHILIPPE HUGUEN
An artificial womb, tested on pre-natal lambs, could help extremely premature babies avoid death or disability © AFP PHILIPPE HUGUEN

Agency Report

An artificial womb filled with clear liquid, successfully tested on pre-natal lambs, could help extremely premature babies avoid death or life-long disability, researchers reported Tuesday.

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“It is designed to continue what naturally occurs in the womb,” said Alan Flake, a foetal surgeon at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and senior author of a study in Nature Communications that details the breakthrough.

“That’s the beauty of it, and why I’m optimistic we will improve on what is currently done for extremely premature babies,” he told journalists by phone.

Today, infants brought into the world after only 22 or 23 weeks of gestation rather than the full 40 have a 50/50 chance of living, and — for those that survive — a 90 percent change of severe and lasting health problems.

The new system mimics life in the uterus and could, if approved for human use, dramatically improve those odds.

The researchers are working with the US Food and Drug Administration to prepare human trials, which could start within three years.

The foetus — breathing liquid, as it would in the womb — lies in a clear-plastic sack filled with a synthetic amniotic fluid.

“A fluid environment is critical for foetal development,” said Flake.

The umbilical cord is attached via tubes to a machine outside the bag, which removes CO2 and adds oxygen to blood passing through it.

There are no mechanical pumps — it is the foetus’s heart that keeps things moving.

Current treatment has pushed the boundary of survivability to 22 or 23 weeks, but comes at a high cost.

Beyond a high mortality rate, tiny lungs and hearts of preemies barely a half-a-kilo (a pound) in weight are ill-equipped to withstand the trauma of intubation, ventilators and artificial pumps.