For years, researchers and physicians have been trying to extend the viability of babies that are born prematurely. Babies born under 37 weeks of gestation are considered premature and are at an increased risk for death and disability. These risks increase exponentially the younger the age of the infant; the youngest possible age of viability is roughly 22 weeks. Premature infants are usually placed on life support systems which allow for the maintenance of homeostatic stability. However, this increases their risk of infection, organ damage due to ventilation, and neurological defects.
In recent decades, various researchers have been attempting to create artificial wombs in which a premature baby may continue to develop in a more stable and natural environment. The first successful attempt was in 1997 when Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara of Juntendo University announced that a 17-week-old goat fetus survived for three weeks in an artificial womb. The fetus was placed in a plastic container of warm amniotic-like fluid and supplied with nutrients through a tube inserted into its umbilical cord.
Recently, in a paper published in June 2017, scientists used a technique called ex vivo uterine environment therapy to grow six premature lambs for one week in an artificial womb. Five of the six lambs completed the week-long therapy with no significant physiological changes or defects. The ex vivo uterine environment is essentially an amniotic fluid bath equipped with an artificial placenta that can sustain a developing preterm fetus. It is important to note that the artificial womb is not intended to replace the human womb, but rather act as an alternative to current neonatal incubators. With refinement, this technology has the potential to be applied to human fetuses within the next decade, allowing for more successful outcomes in preterm fetuses. However, the ethics of such a therapy are questionable and have yet to be elucidated.
Written By Daniel Diatlov
References may be found in the journal.