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An Artificial Womb Has Successfully Grown A Lamb For Four Weeks

It has the potential to revolutionise the way premature babies are cared for.

26/04/2017 5:27 PM AEST

Building on over 60 years of research, surgeons and neonatologists at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have created an artificial womb that has successfully grown eight fetal lambs for over four weeks.

Previous attempts have been successful in sustaining life for just hours, however the new system designed by researchers was able to support the fetuses for up to 28 days without any damage to their lungs or brain.

According to the research, which was published in the Nature Communications journal on Tuesday, the system, which resembles a large zip-lock bag, is filled with synthetic lab-made amniotic fluid.

During the c-section delivery of the lamb -- the equivalent of a 23-week-old human baby -- the umbilical cord is kept long and surgeons insert tubes into the blood vessels where the cut has been made.

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While inside the bags, the lambs opened their eyes, had apparently normal breathing and swallowing movements and grew wool.

Blood then flows out of the umbilical cord through these tubes to an oxygenator which extracts carbon dioxide and adds oxygen. It then flows back to the fetus, which is fed fluid nutrition by a connected IV bag.

Following the trial's success, it is hoped that the development of a scaled-down system for human infants could drastically improve the health outcomes of premature newborns, according to Dr Alan Flake, lead author and Director of the Centre for Fetal Research at the hospital.

"If our system is as successful as we think it can be, ultimately the majority of pregnancies predicted at-risk for extreme prematurity would be delivered onto a system that keeps them immersed, rather than being delivered onto a ventilator," he said.

"With that we would have normal physiologic development and avoid essentially all the major risks of prematurity -- and that would translate into a huge impact on pediatric health".

The team is reportedly in discussions with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and predicts babies could be incubated in the system within three years of the first clinical trial, The Guardian reports.

Partridge et al/Nature Communications

"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not currently exist," Flake said.

"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world. If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve the outcomes for extremely premature babies.

"This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability. This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants."

While inside the bags, the lambs opened their eyes, had normal breathing and swallowing movements and grew wool.

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