Ewe, get a womb! Docs grow baby lambs in shrink-wrap plastic bags


A womb with a view ... No, this isn't the latest pivot from Juicero

Video Scientists in Philadelphia have created a plastic womb that has successfully incubated eight premature lambs – and the doctors behind the project say they will be ready for human trials within three years.

The machine, described in the journal Nature Communications, consists of a plastic bag which is kept full of electrolyte solution made in a lab to simulate amniotic fluid. There are two tubes, one sucking blood out of the infant then running it through an oxygenator and another feeding the blood back into the body. In tests, all the lambs emerged with no ill effects.

If you're already feeling queasy at the idea of lab-grown humans, that's not what this machine is designed for. It was developed at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for the much more admirable purpose of keeping premature babies alive and healthy.

Around 30,000 babies are born prematurely in the US each year and many suffer for the rest of their lives as a result. The lungs of such infants aren't ready to inhale air and do so very poorly, and as a result preemies suffer abnormally high levels of lung and brain illnesses if they survive.

The artificial womb is designed to take these premature babies and put them back into an environment they are best suited for, where they can inhale fluid and allow a technological placenta to feed them oxygen and nutrients. In tests the lambs were kept in the wombs in a dark room and played the sound of a sheep's heartbeat.

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"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world," said Alan Flake, MD, director of the Center for Fetal Research at CHOP. "If we can develop an extra-uterine system to support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies."

The machine is the result of three years of development that started with unfunded doctors buying parts from eBay and brewing shops to cobble together a prototype. After several iterations, the team now thinks it has perfected the system and, after a few more years of animal testing, they want to try to save some human infants. ®

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