Incredible artificial womb currently being tested on lambs offers hope to parents of premature babies
A device which simulates the conditions of the womb could greatly improve the survival chances of children born prematurely in as little as five years.
The artificial womb, developed by scientists at the Centre for Foetal Research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, is currently being tested on foetal lambs, born at the equivalent in age to a child born at 23 weeks.
The plastic device encases the foetus in artificial amniotic fluid, and circulates its blood through the umbilical cord into a filtering device externally, which simulates the activity of a mother's placenta.
Doctors who are involved in the development of the ground-breaking equipment believe that human trials could begin in as soon as three years. There are high hopes that the technology could greatly extend the survival rate of infants born at 23 weeks, which is currently close to 15pc.
A child born at 23 weeks has huge health complications as vital organs, particularly the lungs are not developed. The device allows the foetus to continue to develop during the critical period between 23 and 28 weeks in the simulated womb, improving its changes of survival.
The six premature lambs used in the research continued to develop during their month in the artificial womb, opening their eyes, developing their nervous systems and vital organs, and growing wool.
After leaving the device, many were killed humanely in order to analyse their organs, but some were kept alive and bottle fed. The lambs appeared to have normal development on the same level as their peers who reached full-term in their mother's womb, and are now healthy one-year-olds.
Speaking of the device to the Telegraph, Dr Alan Flake, director of the Center for Fetal Research at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, US, said: "These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world.
"If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies.
"This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability. This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants."