'Womb-like device may help save premature babies'

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One of the surviving lambs now lives a healthy life on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Flake adds this level of extreme prematurity is the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity in the USA, accounting for one-third of all infant deaths and one-half of all cases of cerebral palsy attributed to prematurity. The oldest is now a year old and "doing well", the team says. It'll save the lives of babies born 22-24 weeks into term, a time when now, only half of them survive. But it could reduce a host of complications, such as cerebral palsy.

WATCH: BORN 4 MONTHS EARLY, THIS TINY SURVIVOR BEATS THE ODDS Directed by David Terry Fine and previously told by Radiolab, this short documentary is the story of a strong spirit in a tiny body and impossible decisions influenced by technological capabilities.

Obviously this hasn't been tested in premature human babies yet.

-The premature lambs were delivered by C-section and immediately placed into a temperature-controlled bag filled with a substitute for amniotic fluid that they swallow and take into their lungs.

The researchers then attached the umbilical cord to a machine that exchanges carbon dioxide in blood with oxygen, like a placenta normally does. The average human gestation period is 40 weeks.

In answer to all these concerns, Flake points out the ethical concerns should be balanced against the risk of death and severe disabilities faced by extremely premature infants.

The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

The technology was tested on fetal lambs, whose development is similar to humans.

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The recent tests featured eight lamb fetuses that spent between 105 to 115 days inside their mothers' womb. As the weeks progressed, they noticed the fetus started to become more lively and grow its wool.

"We know that even a few hours of that [current technology] damages the lungs of a 24-week infant", says Dr. George Mychaliska, a pediatric and fetal surgeon at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.

How Does The New Artificial Womb Work? He is shown near giant tanks holding a liquid created to simulate amniotic fluid.

This way the animal gets oxygen as it would in the womb, through blood, rather than by using its underdeveloped lungs, buying time for the lungs and other organs to grow normally. The doctors have been working on the artificial womb for years, starting on their own, with their own funds, and using a variety of surplus and low-priced materials.

A lamb encases in an artificial womb, with drawing explaining the science.

Doctors who are involved in the development of the ground-breaking equipment believe that human trials could begin in as soon as three years. However, the artificial womb prototype can improve the infant's chances of survival.

The researchers plan on continuing to evaluate and refine the system, as well as downsize it for humans, who are about one-third the size of infant lambs.

"We're in the process of interacting with the FDA, so it's not inconceivable that we could be talking about a clinical trial one to two years from now", Flake said.

The researchers want the womb to one day be used in neonatal intensive care units as an alternative to ventilation for babies born at 23 weeks gestation onwards.

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