Mimicking the womb

An artificial placenta could revolutionise care for premature babies.

Researchers at the University of Michigan have created an artificial placenta that could help save the lives of premature infants. The revolutionary technology, which they have been working on for more than a decade, has been hugely successful thus far in helping premature lambs.

Through this technology, researchers are hoping to increase the survival rate of babies who are born within the extremely premature bracket, which is before 24 weeks. Essentially the artificial placenta mimics the environment of the womb. These babies are not yet ready for life outside of it.

George Mychaliska is an MD at CS Mott Children’s Hospital and the leading investigator of the University of Michigan’s Fetus Diagnosis and Treatment Centre. He explains how the idea was conceptualised: “We thought, ‘Why don’t we solve the problem of prematurity by re-creating the intrauterine environment?’… Maybe we should treat these babies as if they are still in the womb. This is a complete paradigm shift. Our research is still in a very preliminary stage, but we’ve passed a significant milestone that gives us promise of revolutionising the treatment of prematurity.”

The aim of their research is for the placenta to be able to sustain critical organ growth and development outside of the womb. At present, extremely premature babies who have not been fully developed face disabilities and death.

Mychaliska says, “One of the gravest risks for extremely premature babies is undeveloped lungs that are too fragile to handle even the gentlest ventilation techniques”.

“Although many of our current therapies are lifesaving, they are not designed for premature babies and are often ineffective or contribute to complications,” he adds.

Researchers at the university’s CS Mott Children’s Hospital and Extracorporeal Circulation Research Laboratory are working hard to further progress their research and get a clinical trial. An initial trial held using extremely premature lambs was successful but it was only able to keep the lambs alive for one week.

The artificial placenta uses extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which allowed the lambs to survive as if still in the womb, without forcing them to take their first breath.

"Our research is rapidly progressing. Given our recent advances, we believe that the artificial placenta may be used in premature babies in the next five years,” says Mychaliska.

The project’s success with the extremely premature lambs has enabled them with a 2.7 million dollar National Institutes of Health grant, which will contribute to furthering their research.

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