Whoa: CHOP Working on Womb-Like Device for Premature Babies 

An illustration of the womb-like device

An illustration of the womb-like device

“This certainly is a project that would have sounded more like science fiction than a reality,” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Fellow Emily Partridge says in a video explaining the womb-like device she and a team of researchers at CHOP are currently working on. And really, it does sound like something straight from a science-fiction novel.

The device she’s talking about, explained on CHOP’s website, is designed to serve as a womb-like environment to give extremely premature infants a better chance at survival. You know how expecting mothers sometimes liken themselves to an oven, saying their “baby is cooking”? Well, this device, it seems, would essentially allow premature infants to keep cookin’, as though they were in a womb, from the 23-week to 28-week gestational age, further developing their lungs and other organs and hopefully improving their outcomes. (As CHOP notes, extreme prematurity is the leading cause of infant mortality and morbidity in the country.)

Researchers at CHOP have been working on the system, what looks like a fluid-filled bag in its current iteration, for over three years, and as the blog post on CHOP’s website describes it:

The current system mimics life in the uterus as closely as possible, building on knowledge from previous research.There is no external pump to drive circulation, because even gentle artificial pressure can fatally overload an underdeveloped heart, and there is no ventilator, because the immature lungs are not yet ready to do their work of breathing in atmospheric oxygen. Instead, the baby’s heart pumps blood via the umbilical cord into the system’s low-resistance external oxygenator that substitutes for the mother’s placenta in exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.

In addition, amniotic fluid, produced in the laboratory, flows into and out of the bag. “Fetal lungs are designed to function in fluid, and we simulate that environment here, allowing the lungs and other organs to develop, while supplying nutrients and growth factors,” said Fetal Physiologist Marcus G. Davey, PhD, who designed and redesigned the system’s inflow and outflow apparatus.

The CHOP researchers’ preclinical studies, performed on preterm lambs, were published in the journal Nature Communications earlier this week. Human testing is a bit further down the road. You can check out the full video of the researchers explaining the device and what it could potentially do below. And be prepared — your jaw will drop.

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