When preemies are born, they're tiny, fragile, hooked up to IVs and just not ready to be in the world yet. So, what if they didn't have to be?
A new study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications suggests researchers are closer than ever to creating artificial wombs that let preemies continue growing. Within a decade, preemies could be transferred from their mothers' wombs to special bags filled with amniotic fluid made for gestating babies for another month until they're ready to face the world.
If this sounds like a scene out of a creepy sci-fi movie in which the protagonists discover a lab full of incubated aliens in little bags of liquid, the author of the study assures you that it won't be anything like that. Rather, it would be made to look like a neonatal incubator with the potential of even including the mother's heartbeat.
So far, the development of these baby incubators have focused on preemie lambs—a similar animal model for human fetuses. The researchers used eight lambs that were 105 to 115 days old (equivalent to a 23-week-old fetus). Each one was individually suspended in a liquid-filled artificial womb that allowed them to develop for an additional four weeks. In those four weeks, the originally fleshy lambs started fattening up, opening their eyes, and grew fluffy, white wool coats. Though it was successful this time around, the researchers still have two years left in studying the animals. But if all goes well, these artificial wombs could be tested on humans in three to five years.
Here's how the apparatus would work with a human preemie: First, the baby would have to be delivered via C-section. During the operation, the preemie would be given a drug that would prevent him from taking gulps of air once exposed to the outside world. Shortly after that, the baby would be put in the womb-like polyethylene bag full of amniotic fluid where he could peacefully continue to grow. The infant would rely on his own heart to pump blood through his umbilical cord and into an oxygenator, where the blood then picks up the oxygen and returns it to the fetus. Moreover, the amniotic fluid in the bag would protect the preemie from infections and also help with the development of the intestines.
Could this sci-fi idea become reality? There are still some kinks that the researchers will have to work out. For example, they don't know if a human baby umbilical cord will function like a lamb's, and the fact that human preemies are one-third the size of the lambs used in the study will also have to be taken into consideration.
While reducing costs for hospitals has a part to play in seeing these artificial wombs come to fruition, this kind of apparatus could save preemie lives, make all the difference for their quality of life and offer more hope for NICU parents, as well.