The artificial system tested in lamb fetuses shows promise in saving babies born extremely prematurely

Tremendous advances in neonatal intensive care have dramatically improved the survival of children born extremely premature—generally defined as under 28 weeks gestation. But this technology comes with a price. These children typically have severe lung problems and other complications because their organs haven’t matured enough to function properly.

A project led by scientists at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and carried out in lambs, and reported by NPR, might help science overcome some of these medical challenges. The research team devised a system that incorporates a pumpless system circulating oxygen that connects to the lamb fetus via an artificial umbilical cord.  The system was maintained within a closed-sac amniotic fluid circuit that mimics the natural womb. The nutrition provided via the amniotic fluid circuit consisted of amino acids, carbohydrates and a trace of lipid.

The findings, published this week in Nature Communications, showed that this system was able to support a lamb fetus for up to a month. With the appropriate nutritional support the lamb fetuses existing in this system continued to develop—the lungs matured, their brains grew and somatic growth and myelination also occurred.

“We’ve been extremely successful in replacing the conditions in the womb in our lamb model,” Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who led the study, told NPR news. “They’ve had normal growth. They’ve had normal lung maturation. They’ve had normal brain maturation. They’ve had normal development in every way that we can measure it,” Flake says.

For a closer look at this experiment, check out CHOP’s video describing how their researchers recreated the womb.