Scientists have successfully continued to grow lambs born prematurely in an artificial womb – and everyone is wondering if this is a good thing and if human babies are next.
Science grew a little lamb
This jaw-dropping lamb-growing is part of a study by Dr Alan Flake, foetal surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and his team. The study results were released yesterday, along with some amazing video of the work being done.
(Note that the lambs were premmies born via c-section and then transferred into these artificial wombs in the hope of saving their lives.)
The vision of the lamb – one of several grown for four weeks outside its mother’s body – in something resembling a giant, tube-riddled zip-lock bag is both compelling and slightly unsettling.
It’s obviously a great leap for science, but many are scratching their heads and wondering if this is the future, for some human parents and kids, at least, and whether that’s a bad thing.
Life-saving advance for premmies
The monster zip-lock is actually called a BioBag, and the research team toiling away on this project had eight lambs developing in these external wombs.
While this all may seem a bit Frankenstein or baby-production-line, Dr Flake explained that the BioBag may some day be a lifesaver for human infants.
The team hopes the BioBag will eventually be used to nurture premmie babies and keep them in a womb-like environment until they’re closer to full-term. Premature birth is sadly the leading cause of death for newborn babies.
Dr Flake explains this is more about finding solutions for current challenges, rather than conceiving and growing babies outside a mother’s body.
“It’s complete science fiction to think that you can take an embryo and get it through the early developmental process and put it on our machine without the mother being the critical element there,” he told The Verge.
So far, the technology has only been successfully tested on sheep.
The premmie sheep were popped into these BioBags and suspended in an electrolyte solution, similar to the amniotic fluid you would usually find in the uterus. The BioBag set-up also features a pumpless circulatory system which allowed the foetus to circulate blood and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.
Four weeks in limbo
Dr Flake explained his study shows: “fetal lambs that are developmentally equivalent to the extreme premature human infant can be physiologically supported in this extra-uterine device for up to 4 weeks.”
“Over four weeks, their lungs and brains grew, they sprouted wool, opened their eyes, wriggled around, and learned to swallow, according to a new study that takes the first step toward an artificial womb,” The Verge reports.
After those four weeks, the lambs were moved onto the usual kind of ventilator used for premature births. All but one lamb survived and Dr Flake says the remainder appear to be perfectly healthy.
“I’m still blown away, whenever I’m down looking at our lambs,” he says, and rightly so!
“I think it’s just an amazing thing to sit there and watch the fetus on this support acting like it normally acts in the womb… It’s a really awe-inspiring endeavor to be able to continue normal gestation outside of the mom,” Dr Flake explained, suggesting that human trials could be as close as three years away.