Amazing Artificial Womb Helped Birth a Premature Lamb, Premature Babies May be Next

Bioethics   |   Micaiah Bilger   |   Aug 21, 2017   |   11:42AM   |   Washington, DC

For the second time in a year, a group of scientists managed to create an artificial womb that one day could save very premature babies’ lives.

Scientists in Philadelphia published promising research on artificial wombs using premature lambs earlier this year; and this week, a team of Australian scientists published their successful results of very similar research.

Science Daily reports the new study in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology this week found that premature lambs at the equivalent of 22 to 23 weeks of human pregnancy developed well in the artificial womb. The Australian scientists observed the baby lambs for one week inside the ex-vivo uterine environment (EVE), or artificial womb. The lambs showed significant growth in the infection-free, womb-like environment, according to the report.

More very early preemies are surviving outside the womb thanks to modern medical technology, but the artificial womb could push back viability even earlier.

A Duke University study published in January found babies born at just 23 weeks gestation are surviving outside the womb at a greater rate than ever before, the Daily Mail reported. Research published in 2015 in the New England Journal of Medicine also found that 23 percent of premature infants are surviving birth as early as 22 weeks. The study also found that some hospitals are not giving babies treatment at this early age, despite talk about pushing back the standard viability line from 24 weeks to 23.

However, survival at 22-24 weeks remains low because the babies’ lungs are so underdeveloped.

Here’s more about the latest study:

Chief Investigator in Australia, Associate Professor Matt Kemp, said that with further development, EVE therapy could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not currently exist.

“Designing treatment strategies for extremely preterm infants is a challenge,” he said.

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“At this gestational age the lungs are often too structurally and functionally under-developed for the baby to breathe easily.”

The research team hypothesised that one means of improving outcomes for this group would be to treat them as a fetus rather than a small infant.

“At its core, our equipment is essentially is a high-tech amniotic fluid bath combined with an artificial placenta. Put those together, and with careful maintenance what you’ve got is an artificial womb,” Assoc Prof Kemp said.

Kemp said the ultimate goal is to create an environment where very premature human babies’ lungs can develop to a healthy stage. The scientists said more research must be done, but the artificial womb shows huge promise for helping very premature babies to survive and thrive.

The study came out of the Women and Infants Research Foundation at the University of Western Australia and Tohoku University Hospital in Japan.

The research is potentially life-saving, but it has abortion activists worried. In the July Gizmodo article “How New Technology Could Threaten a Woman’s Right to Abortion,” reporter Kristen V. Brown wrote, “[Artificial wombs] “complicate – and even jeopardize – the right to abortion in an America in which that right is predicated on whether a fetus is ‘viable.’”

Randal O’Bannon of the National Right to Life Committee responded earlier this month:

If it becomes possible for the mother to abort with a method that leaves the baby alive and intact … can a mother then refuse to allow her baby to be put into an artificial womb where the child could further develop for a few more weeks and be “born” healthy?

Brown sketches out what is for abortion defenders a looming legal and ethical dilemma and notes how doctors, bioethicists, and lawyers “have long taken issue with viability as a standard for legality.”

This new technology just further exposes the problematic nature of their premises.