"Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not now exist", Alan W. Flake, a fetal surgeon at CHOP and study lead, said in a statement.
Six pre-term lambs were used in tests of the most recent version of the "extra-uterine support device", which evolved from a glass tank to the biobag design over a period of three years. Inside of the womb, they placed a premature lamb fetus.
In hopes of building a better incubator, the team at CHOP created multiple prototype devices, eventually creating a device that features a biobag filled with amniotic fluid and a machine to oxygenate the blood via the umbilical cord.
The plastic device encases the foetus in artificial amniotic fluid, and circulates its blood through the umbilical cord into a filtering device externally, which simulates the activity of a mother's placenta. "I think it's just an awesome thing to sit there and watch the fetus on this support acting like it normally acts in the womb".
The trials of this extra-uterine technology took place recently and the results were published in a scientific journal.
Ultimately, an infant is considered premature when they are born before 37 weeks of development.
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In the study, the premature lambs, equivalent in age to 23to 24 week-old human infants, appeared to develop normally in their bags.
"These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother's womb and the outside world", Flake said.
Lambs were used due to their close genetic proximity to humans. The risks of damage are just too great when life is premature and so extremely vulnerable.
"These infants are born very early and their lungs are really underdeveloped, they're not ready to be breathing post-natal air gases and what we do with these infants we put them on a ventilator and we give them oxygen which are really damaging to the lung", Dr Davey said.
Despite decades of efforts to reduce it, premature birth remains the leading cause of death among children under five years of age.
Study leader Alan Flake told the Washington Post that the team hopes to begin testing the technology on humans soon. In most cases, preterm babies have vulnerable organs, not strong enough to withstand or cope with the atmosphere outside the womb. These babies are often born with a number of potentially life-threatening complications including respiratory distress, lack of swallowing reflexes, and low body temperature. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants".
Lambs aren't human infants, and the device still has a way to go before it could conceivably reach the market.