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Artificial womb raises hope for premature babies

Date posted: 9 August 2017

An artificial womb has been successfully used to incubate healthy baby lambs for a period of one week, and researchers hope the technology will one day be able to do the same for extremely premature babies.

The long-standing collaborative Western Australian-based program, involving researchers from the Women and Infants Research Foundation, the University of Western Australia, and Tohoku University Hospital, Japan, has sought to develop an effective treatment strategy for extremely preterm infants born at the border of viability (22-23 weeks).

Findings published this week in the prestigious medical journal, The American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, have shown that preterm lambs were successfully maintained in a healthy, infection-free condition with significant growth, for a period of one week using ex-vivo uterine environment (EVE) therapy.

Local Chief Investigator, 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. '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. 'By providing an alternative means of gas exchange for the fetus, we hoped to spare the extremely preterm cardiopulmonary system from ventilation-derived injury, and save the lives of those babies whose lungs are too immature to breathe properly. The end goal is to provide preterm babies the chance to better develop their lungs and other important organs before being brought into the world.'

Source: Women and Infants Research Foundation

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Last updated: 9 August 2017
 
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