The concept of an artificial womb is not a fiction anymore. Scientists have now found a way to grow fetuses outside of a biological womb. The process of Ectogenesis (growing a fetus in an artificial womb) has shown positive results when tested on lamb fetuses. And if this technology works seamlessly for human fetuses, this could change the very nature of human reproduction.
A government report revealed that one out of every ten babies in the USA is born before the 37 weeks of gestation. There are a number of causes of preterm birth including infection, genetic problems or placenta problems; however, the cause is unknown in most of the cases. If the fetuses can be nurtured in the artificial womb until the gestation process is completed, this can save a huge number of babies.
Sadly, 80 percent of the babies born before 24 weeks do not survive. And even though the rest 20 percent are kept alive in the incubators, they tend to show significant health issues due to their immature organs. Most of these babies develop major complications like breathing problems, cerebral palsy, vision problems and even developmental issues.
Last year, the researchers at the Children Hospital in Philadelphia were able to keep eight fetal lambs alive, in the most sophisticated artificial wombs till date, which were basically oversized Ziploc bags strewn with tubes of blood and other fluid. The brains and lungs of these fetuses grew over the period of four weeks. In fact, those babies opened their eyes, sprouted wool and even learned to swallow.
This plastic Ziploc bag, which is designed to function as an artificial womb, is actually inspired by the biological womb. It has a black tube plugged at the location of the umbilical cord, while the fluid and oxygen-carrying circuits allow a constant removal of waste fluid and maintain a flow of nutrients. Also, the artificial placenta in the bag is connected to a “Biobag” that contains artificial amniotic fluid.
In a separate study, the researchers at Cambridge University were also able to keep a human embryo alive outside the body for 13 days in an artificial environment. The system used a mixture of nutrients to mimic the conditions of a biological womb. This was the longest an embryo had survived outside the human body. Unfortunately, the research couldn’t be continued as the researchers reached the 14-day legal limit for keeping an embryo in a lab.
A considerable amount of progress has been made in the past few years on the subject of the artificial womb, and it is needless to say that it is making a path for one of the most significant scientific breakthroughs of our time. Apart from increasing the survival rate of premature babies, it will also save older women from the complications of pregnancy.
Furthermore, it will allow the women work throughout gestation while freeing them from the dangers of pregnancy. Also, it might be a better alternative to the commercial surrogacy. And lastly, it may present the infertile couples, same-sex partners and transpeople a new fertility option.
Image source: Studies of the Fetus in the Womb