(TFC) – An artificial womb successfully grew a baby sheep — and according to some humans could be next.
Inside what looked like an over-sized zip lock bag with umbilical cords and tubes pumping fluids, a lamb was able to develop under the watchful eye of researchers. Almost in the exact same way that they would have inside their own mother’s womb. Over four weeks, its lungs and brains grew, it sprouted wool, opened its eyes, wriggled around, and learned to swallow, according to the study that takes the first step toward an artificial womb.The procedure could soon help bring premature babies come to term outside the uterus. Or combined with stem-cell technology could potentially enable human cloning for a multitude of medical and research related reasons. — “but right now, it has only been tested on sheep.”
It’s apparently appealing for some to imagine a world where artificial wombs grow babies, eliminating the “risk of pregnancy”, but to others it conjures memories of Aldous Huxley’s ‘A Brave New Word’ with its Bokanovsky Process where babies are are created in jars, or the 2005 American science fiction thriller ‘The Island’ where the rich could afford to make clones of themselves just in case they had an accident. We are coming into the age where body parts and organs are able to be replaced or even upgraded.
“It is important not to get ahead of the data”, says Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and lead author of the study. “It’s complete science fiction to think that you can take an embryo and get it through the early developmental process and put it on our machine without the mother being the critical element there,” he says.
Instead, the embryo is developed and then moved to an external womb which he calls the “Biobag”. “This will be able to give infants born months too early a more natural, uterus-like environment to continue developing”, Flake says.
The “Biobag” might not look like a womb, but it contains all the same parts: a clear plastic bag that encloses the fetal lamb and protects it from the outside world; an electrolyte solution bathes the lamb similarly to the amniotic fluid in the uterus; and an umbilical cord for the fetus to circulate its blood and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Flake and his colleagues published their results in the journal Nature Communications.
Flake hopes the Biobag will improve the care options for extremely premature infants, who have “well documented, dismal outcomes,” he says. Prematurity is the leading cause of death for newborns. In the US, about 10 percent of babies are born prematurely — which means they were born before they reach 37 weeks of pregnancy. About 6 percent, or 30,000 of those births, are considered extremely premature, which means that they were born at or before the 28th week of pregnancy. Most of these infants (between 20 to 50 percent of them) still suffer from a host of health conditions that arise from the stunted development of their organ systems.
For decades scientists have been trying to develop an artificial womb that would create a more natural environment for a premature baby to continue to develop in. One of the main challenges was recreating the intricate circulatory system that connects mom to fetus: the mom’s blood flows to the baby and back, exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide. The blood needs to flow with just enough pressure, but an external pump can damage the baby’s heart.
To solve this problem, Flake and his colleagues created a pumpless circulatory system. They connected the fetus’s umbilical blood vessels to a new kind of oxygenator, and the blood moved more efficiently through the system. Smoothly enough, in fact, that the baby’s heartbeat was able to power blood flow without another pump.
Of course, lambs aren’t humans — and their brains develop at a somewhat different pace. The authors acknowledge that it’s going to take more research into the science and safety of this device before it can be used on human babies. They’ve already started testing it on human-sized lambs that were put in the Biobags earlier in pregnancy. And they are monitoring the few lambs that survived after being taken off the ventilator to look for long-term problems. So far, the lambs seem pretty healthy. “I think it’s realistic to think about three years for first-in-human trials,” Flake says.
Right now they are only using premature fetuses according to the study, but with the progression of stem-cell technology it is not too far of a leap to see human beings go from conception to birth entirely outside of a human body.