According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 15 million babies are born too early every year. That is more than one in ten babies. Prematurity is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5, and those that survive can face a lifetime of disability, with one million premature children dying every single year.
Those are some pretty grim statistics, but it used to be a lot worse before modern medicine, and thanks to a recent breakthrough, it could get a lot better.
Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia were able to keep eight extremely premature lambs alive for four weeks in a fluid-filled plastic bag, dubbed the Biobag, that acted just like a womb. And lead author Dr. Alan Flake hopes that something similar could be used for premature babies within the next three years.
While in the artificial womb, their lungs and brains grew, they sprouted wool, opened their eyes, wriggled around, and learned to swallow. Flake told New Scientist:
“We’ve developed a system that, as closely as possible, reproduces the environment of the womb and replace the function of the placenta.”
“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.”
Flake explained that premature babies supported by incubators are prone to deadly infections, and that their lambs lasted so long because the Biobag is a sealed environment filled with water and salts to mimic the nutrients usually supplied by a uterus.
In place of a placenta, oxygenator devices were connected to the umbilical cords. And a device that uses their own heartbeats to deliver oxygen kept the lambs alive for the full 21-week gestational period for sheep.
The lambs were then euthanized so that their organs could be examined, and the team found no abnormalities in their brains and lungs, as are common in premature children. “These animals are, by any parameter we’ve measured, normal,” Flake added.
Flake and his team are working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a version of the device for extremely premature human infants. Their plan right now is to use the device on babies born at around 24 weeks, and nurse them until they reach around 28 weeks. Mark Turner of the University of Liverpool says that at this point, chances of survival are far greater.
Of course, lambs are different from humans, and while Neil Marlow, at University College London, said the idea was "fascinating," he warned that it would take years to develop a version safe for human babies.
Elizabeth Rogers, neonatologist and co-director for the Intensive Care Nursery Follow-Up Program of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital, who wasn't involved in the study, told Verge that right now many parents are faced with the difficult decision of using "aggressive measures to keep these babies alive, or whether to allow for less painful, comfort care."
"One of the unspoken things in extreme preterm birth is that there are families who say, ‘If I had known the outcome for my baby could be this bad, I wouldn’t have chosen to put her through everything,'" she added. So there's no doubt that any medical advancement that helps increase the odds for premature babies will be welcomed with open arms.