Seeing the results of the study, other researchers praised the work of the scientists saying that the device could one day end up saving the thousands of premature babies born every year.
Designer of the flow apparatus, Marcus Davey (also from CHOP) explains: "Fetal lungs are created to function in fluid, and we simulate that environment here, allowing the lungs and other organs to develop, while supplying nutrients and growth factors".
The technology was tested on fetal lambs, whose development is similar to humans. The infant's heart would pump blood via the umbilical cord into an external device that replaces the mother's placenta, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.
The womb that looks like a plastic zip-lock bag is actually a fluid-filled bag furnished with nutrient-rich blood supply, a protective sac of amniotic fluid and everything else required for a fetus to grow and mature. They all appeared to grow normally, without any significant changes in their blood pressure and other important health measures.
"If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", Dr Flake says. At the beginning of their experiment, the tiny lambs were at the biological equivalent of premature babies in the 23 to 24 week gestation stage.
"This is still pre-clinical or experimental data, but the research group in Philadelphia have managed to overcome numerous limitations others have had in supporting a baby or foetus with womb-like conditions", he said. This time, the researchers tried to mimic more closely what happens during normal pregnancy.
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The biobag also allows the baby to breathe through its umbilical cord, which is connected to an oxygenator, just as it would inside its mother.
First, more tests in animals are needed to check it is safe enough to progress, the researchers say in the journal Nature Communications.
Doctors at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have developed a new artificial womb that could benefit the tens of thousands of critically preterm (younger than 26 weeks) births in the U.S. each year.
The first steps towards an artificial womb...
The scientists made amniotic fluid in their lab and set up the system so that this flowed into and out of the bag.
Currently, the device is in the animal testing phase of development and more work will need to be done before it can be approved for testing on human infants.
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Six pre-term lambs were used in tests of the most recent version of the device, which evolved from a glass tank to the biobag design over a period of three years.
Flake cautioned that not every extremely premature baby can benefit from this device.
Although the team stresses they probably can't sustain babies any younger than 23 weeks, Flake says this could "establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants".
Alan Flake, lead author of the study and fetal surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said that they are trying to extend the process to a normal gestation, as he considers it as a temporary bridge between the maternal womb and the outside world.
Human testing still is three to five years away, although the team already is in discussions with the Food and Drug Administration. It helped out severely premature born animals to develop normally for a month.
In babies born preterm, the chance of survival at less than 23 weeks is nearly zero, while at 23 weeks it is 15%, at 24 weeks 55% and at 25 weeks this increases to about 80%, according to United Kingdom maternal and fetal research charity, Tommy's.
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