Around 15 million babies are born preterm or premature every year, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This number is expected to rise, bringing more infants into the world before completing 37 weeks of gestation. How we are going to care for a growing number of premature infants is a real concern: preterm birth complications were responsible for almost a million deaths in 2015, making it the leading cause of death among children below 5 years of age.
Thankfully, there are a number of interventions that can help, many of which involve developing better incubation chambers — even artificial wombs and placentas — where the premature infants can continue their growth outside the womb. One of these is an artificial womb developed by a combined team of researchers from the Women and Infants Research Foundation, the University of Western Australia, and Tohoku University Hospital, Japan.
“Designing treatment strategies for extremely preterm infants is a challenge,” lead researcher Matt Kemp said in a press release. “At this gestational age the lungs are often too structurally and functionally under-developed for the baby to breathe easily.” Their work, published in The American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, took a different approach. The key was treating the preterm infants not as babies, but as fetuses.
Their device and method successfully incubated healthy baby lambs in an ex-vivo uterine environment (EVE) for a one-week period. “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,” Kemp explained.
He added in the press release, “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.” It’s this approach that makes it revolutionary.
The scientists hope that this EVE therapy could soon help bring preterm human babies to term. “We now have a much better understanding of what works and what doesn’t, and although significant development is required, a life support system based around EVE therapy may provide an avenue to improve outcomes for extremely preterm infants,” Kemp said.