Womb without a ewe

The Spark

12th May 2017

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Researchers in the US have invented an artificial womb capable of supporting fetal lambs outside the uterus of a mother ewe. According to the Nature Communications journal, scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia have shown that “fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to 4 weeks”.

Yes, that means humans could be next. Indeed, The Verge reports that researchers hope human trials will begin in around three years. The translucent pouch mimics the environment of a real womb, complete with amniotic fluid and a pump-less circuit allowing oxygenation of the blood. Not quite the incubator pods from The Matrix but not a million miles away, either.

But the point here isn’t to replace women by creating a machine to take care of pregnancy; rather it’s been developed in an effort to improve survival rates and reduce developmental abnormalities in babies born prematurely. Upon reaching full term, those lambs that had been transplanted into the synthetic wombs appeared of similar health to those born after natural gestation, according to the research.

In the UK, charity Tommy’s says preterm birth – that is, babies born earlier than the normal 37-week pregnancy – is the number one cause of newborn deaths, and the second leading cause of deaths in children under five.

While survival rates of ‘very premature’ babies increased from 53% in 2006 to 80% in 2011, even those who make it to childhood often suffer from a range of disabilities. Tommy’s says survival rates improve dramatically the longer a baby stays in the womb, and the scientists in Philadelphia hope providing an artificial alternative will also aid natural development of the brain and other organs.

Tech innovation in healthcare is dramatically extending life spans. Recently, gene snipping tool, CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), eradicated ‘cureless’ HIV in mice and might be set to stop cancer in its tracks amongst a range of other applications.

 

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