Great News for Preterm Babies in The Near Future
Even though we only spend a tiny percentage of our lives in the womb, this period is crucial to each and every person’s development and growth. We need 40 weeks of our gestation in a stable and protected environment to grow into the little people we are when we are born. Unfortunately, not all babies are given the full term in the womb and are born prematurely for various reasons.
What Happens When This Vital Period of Growth is Interrupted?
Around 15 million preterm babies are born every year. This means that the infant is born before 37 completed weeks of gestation. These infants are not only small in size and weight, they have also not had the opportunity to develop properly and may have lungs that are too small to help them breathe adequately and hearts that are not yet strong enough to pump blood through their bodies.
This is particularly applicable to extremely preterm infants who are born at 28 weeks or earlier. At this developmental stage, the infant still needs nutrient and gas exchange through the placenta to help them grow, which makes it particularly challenging for them to live outside the womb. It is generally accepted that doctors and specialists place premature infants in incubators to protect them from infection and keep them in a stable environment until they are strong enough for the world. Even though this is not ideal, it has been the only option – until now.
Sustaining a Premature Infant’s Life in a Womb-Like Environment
Ground-breaking research has potentially uncovered an alternative to incubators, and this new discovery may be the answer to preterm infants completing the development they are meant to during gestation. Researchers from two top universities in Australia and Japan have been testing newly developed artificial wombs and claim that they’ve successfully managed to sustain extremely premature lamb foetuses in an artificially created womb-like environment. The engineered wombs are made of plastic bags that have been filled with artificially created amniotic fluid and connected to a placenta-based life-support system. So far, the premature lamb foetuses were successfully supported for 120 hours, which is around five days, without any signs of injury, inflammation or infection.
Theory vs. Reality
While some researchers are positive about the potential artificial wombs hold for the future of premature infants, others are concerned about translating the research into actual practice. According to Australian researcher Claire Roberts, the development of a human brain is quite different to the development of a lamb brain, so even though the lambs’ brains were not injured, a preterm human brain may still be vulnerable to injury. Roberts also pointed out the emotional challenge this invention poses to parents. Seeing a premature new-born in an incubator is emotionally difficult as it is – imagine having to deal with an infant in a bag of fluid.
A Noble Goal
The ultimate aim of this field of research is to create a safe space outside the womb where preterm infants can have the opportunity to complete their gestation period. Researchers hope that in the future human preterm babies will be able to use this technology to remain in a growth-normal and stable environment ready to survive the outside world.