The story of you begins in the womb. A human baby typically needs 9 months in the mother’s belly before it’s ready to enter the world. But many babies are born premature - that is, they are in the womb less for less than 37 weeks. This means all of their organ systems are not fully developed when they are born.
As of 2017, the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 15 million babies are born prematurely every year. This is concerning because the leading cause of death for children aged 5 and under is preterm birth complications - health issues that come from being born too early.
Thankfully, scientists have developed technologies to help these premature babies and give them more time to develop. In 1880, scientist Stephane Tarnier introduced the incubator into neonatal care. Since then, doctors and nurses have used incubators to help premature babies develop to the stage they should have before being born.
Did you know? Neonatal medicine refers to medicine dealing specifically with newborn mammals.
Unfortunately, this care involves very invasive procedures. For example, babies in incubators sometimes need to be hooked up to machines that help them breathe. But these machines can also damage their developing lungs.
Incubators also don’t fix everything. 20-50% of premature infants still suffer from health conditions. And because of their low birth rate, many premature infants still have a lower chance of surviving than babies that stay in the womb for over 37 weeks.
Scientists have realized that there is a need for a developmental technology that resembles the mother’s womb more closely. That’s where a 2017 study involving lamb fetuses and an artificial womb nicknamed “the Biobag” come in.
What is the Biobag and how does it work?
Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia invented an artificial womb. It consists of a clear plastic bag with several tubes going in and out of it. These tubes provide oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus. Meanwhile, inside the bag is an electrolytic fluid that resembles the amniotic fluid of the womb. Amniotic fluid is essential to the development of a fetus because it contains vital nutrients, growth factors and substances that protect the fetus. Scientists nicknamed this womb the Biobag.
The Biobag could potentially solve some of the problems that other developmental technologies can cause. For example, researchers previously developed artificial wombs with external pumps that would push blood through the baby’s body, but this could cause blood flow imbalances and heart failure. The Biobag uses a pump-less system, relying on the baby’s heart as a driving force for blood circulation. The baby’s heart pushes blood through circulatory tubes, which allows blood pressure to stay at normal levels. The Biobag provides nutrients to the newborn through an umbilical interface, much like how a baby would receive nutrients in a mother’s womb!
As of 2017, this technology has only been tested on premature lamb fetuses. Researchers kept the lamb fetuses in the Biobags for four weeks. After this, the lambs were taken out of the bags and put on ventilators. At this point, many were doing well, though some had some minor complications. Researchers euthanized most of the lambs so that they could further research how their bodies had developed. However, some lamb babies were bottle weaned are still alive more than a year later.
A premature lamb fetus in the Biobag
Image © CC By 4.0
The Biobag is an innovative technology that can revolutionize how medical teams care for premature babies. However, it can’t replace a mother’s womb. It can only support a fetus which has been in the mother’s womb for at least 23 weeks. Scientists don’t fully understand all the interactions happening at the cellular and molecular levels. This technology also needs to go through more animal trials before it’s ready for testing on human babies. However, this experiment could be an important new step in helping babies born prematurely.
Did you know? Preterm birth complications were responsible for approximately 1 million deaths in 2015.
An extra-uterine system to physiologically support the extreme premature lamb (2017)
E.A. Partridge et al., Nature Communications 8.
Fluid-filled ‘biobag’ allows premature lambs to develop outside the womb (2017)
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica