February 24, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In a groundbreaking new study, scientists have managed to artificially recreate the environment of a womb, which may one day provide critical care to premature babies.

From pain to extensive hormonal changes, the challenges women face during pregnancy are bountiful. However, dangers associated with premature births can cause particularly devastating consequences for mothers and their infants. A new study published in Nature Communications, reports on the first successful development of a premature foetus in an artificial womb, which may offer interesting opportunities for the future of developmental biology.

The study involved keeping a lamb foetus in a bag-like artificial womb for four weeks, where it was seen to successfully mimic normal developmental stages. The apparatus consisted of a ‘biobag’, which closely resembled a plastic bag. This imitated the functions of the uterus, separating the foetus from the outside environment. The bag was filled with electrolytes to provide the equivalent of amniotic fluids to support and protect foetal development. The umbilical cord was then connected to a device that transported blood and nutrients. During the one-month period of gestation, scientists were able to observe wool growth as well as swallowing functions.

This device provides a tremendous breakthrough in developmental medicine. So far ‘biobags’ have only been tested on lambs, but may one-day help resolve the issues associated with premature births, by providing a secure alternative way for babies born before 37 weeks to continue their crucial development.

It is being predicted that artificial wombs may be tested on humans within the next five years. A first challenge to overcome will be in the development of an appropriate process to transfer an infant in to an artificial womb. Underweight infants have difficulty breathing in air, and prolonged exposure to the external environment could lead to lung arrest. A suggested approach is to carry out a cesarian section to reduce this risk. Another consideration will be to understand if human infants will interact with the artificial wombs in a similar way to lambs.

Although the study is in its early stages and there are many unknowns, it has the potential to revolutionise survival chances for premature infants.

Marek Wolczynski is studying Biochemistry with German for Science

Banner image: Newborn in incubator, Kwangmoozaa