Lambs grown in man-made womb

In a study reported in Nature Communications earlier this week, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia created an artificial womb that sustained a prematurely delivered lamb for up to four weeks. The study involved several different trials, with each trial incorporating the features that the previous one failed on.

Prenatal birth — that is, when a fetus is delivered before 37 weeks of gestation — is the leading cause of perinatal mortality. Should the fetus survive to infancy, premature birth may cause a higher risk of cerebral palsy, development delay, and sight and hearing problems. In fact, according to an article in Science, it is the very mechanisms meant to keep fetuses alive that cause problems. For instance, mechanical ventilation often has a detrimental effect on an infant’s respiratory system by either harming the lungs itself or impeding proper lung development. Researchers have tried several different methods and devices that mimic the natural conditions of a womb, to almost a near success, but this method stands out because of its simplicity and the minimized use of external intervention.

The artificial womb experiment maintained a closed fluid environment around the lamb using a bio-bag, in which the artificial amniotic fluid is circulated by the lamb’s heart and lungs without the help of any pumps or resistors. An oxygenator was a part of the process too, but influenced the circulation rate minimally. This helped maintain normal vitals and prevent heart failure. The fluid surrounding the fetus was nutrition- and oxygen-rich and the placenta was fed through external ports that were maintained to be sterile to prevent infection.

This experiment could be a step forward in reducing perinatal mortality rates and the risks that come with premature birth.