By Suzan Morshed ‘19
Overcoming biology and technological obstacles, a team of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has crafted what may be the best artificial womb yet. This creation, which has been named the Biobag, is said to be capable in significantly minimizing illness and fatalities in premature babies.
Even with all of these advancements, modern medicine does not yet have a good handle on caring for extreme preterm babies.
Preterm birth, also known as premature birth, is the arrival of a baby at fewer than 37 weeks gestational age. Preterm birth is the most common cause of death among infants worldwide. Those that do survive are at greater risk for developmental delays, cerebral palsy, and sight and hearing problems. Actually surviving is one of the first challenges that preterm babies face, and the Biobag can help tackle this first obstacle.
“Almost one of every ten infants born in the United States is premature. It is crucial that we continue to develop studies like these to help this population develop as they would if they had been a full term baby,” said Lindsay McMann ‘18.
The system consisted of a container made of immobile plastic and electrolyte fluid. It also contained a device, powered by the fetus’s heartbeat, which allowed its heart to pump blood through the umbilical cord and mimic the functions of the placenta. One tube carried the blood from the baby into an oxygenator, where the blood was infused with oxygen. The second tube then carried the oxygenated blood to the fetus.
The extensive team of researchers at the hospital tested this system on eight preterm lambs, and have reportedly observed them develop normally. Over the course of four weeks, their lungs and brains grew, they opened their eyes, moved around, and learned to swallow, and even sprouted wool.
“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 here,” said Dr. Alan Flake, fetal surgeon of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia according to The Verge.
Dr. Trevor Stokes’ Anatomy and Physiology class took part in discovering the trimesters of childbirth and the diseases that babies contract as a result of being born prematurely along with the long-term effects.
“These preliminary studies are very exciting and make big headlines, but my one caution is that this is indeed a preliminary study. I’m not sure how this will pan out, but it opens up a lot of possibilities for the more extreme premature babies,” said Dr. Stokes.
Indeed, there still remain many uncertainties concerning this procedure. Tippi Mackenzie, a fetal and pediatric surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco who trained with Flake, was worried that a premature fetus battling infection will not be able to develop in the artificial womb. Additionally, scientists still do not know how this trial will compare with one on a human fetus.
Although the Biobag has not been tested on humans, the future seems bright for babies born prematurely and their families.