Every year, approximately 15 million babies are born prematurely and half do not survive. Research is investigating whether we could continue fetal growth in an artificial womb, to enhance an extremely premature baby’s chances of survival. Is this the next medical marvel, or the stuff of horror films?
Premature birth (birth before the 37th week of pregnancy) is the biggest cause of death amongst newborns, and the news of an artificial womb could be of comfort to many who have had to experience losing a child from being born too soon. Currently, pre-term babies are kept in incubators and attached to many machines to keep them alive. However, some scientists believe air is too harsh for a premature baby’s lungs, leading to long-term damage and that a more natural environment should instead be mimicked. The artificial womb hit headlines again in October (2019), but this is not a new area of research. Back in 2017, it was reported that scientists had successfully grown a lamb in a “biobag”.
After decades of research, developers revealed the biobag (looks similar to an opaque sandwich bag) which could hold lamb fetuses for 4 weeks whilst they continued to develop. The bags kept the lambs safe from the outside world, provided them with nutrients and minerals they needed to grow and develop, and supplied a way to circulate its blood, exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen; all things a womb would do for a fetus. The main challenge was re-creating the circulatory system which connects the mother to the fetus as the pressure required is very delicate; too much and the baby’s heart is damaged. The system was designed to not require a pump, and instead use the baby’s umbilical cord as a direct exchange. Infection was the next biggest risk factor. In an incubator this is a large concern, with a lot of precautions taken to avoid such instances. The artificial womb however keeps the pre-term baby in fluid (like amniotic fluid), which is constantly filtered, removing waste products and shielding the baby from infectious substances; just like a mother.
The newest development is from scientists in the Netherlands with the help of Lisa Mandemaker, the designer who is working with the Maxima Medical Centre. The researchers have suggested they are 10 years from creating the first functioning artificial womb for human fetus’, and 5 years from human trials. Scientists hope that the developments will help babies who are extremely premature (i.e. born at 28 weeks or less), and usually 400g or less. Despite the obvious benefits for preterm babies’ survival odds, there are ethical questions which arise.
The UK and 11 other countries, have a law which bans the development of a fetus in a lab for more than 14 days, preventing people from creating babies just for testing amongst other reasons. Could this change the future of making babies? Ectogenesis (i.e. pregnancy outside of the body) is not a new concept, but has been researched since 1920’s. As with any new technology, some worry about the misuse of such inventions in the wrong hands, for example using the artificial womb to grow humans from a much earlier stage. Some hope for more miraculous outcomes, such as giving women who cannot carry children themselves a new chance, whilst others dream of pregnancies which lack morning sickness or bodily changes etc. Could this be a new form of reproduction?
The artificial womb could change more than just the lives of mothers and preterm babies, possibly altering abortion laws across the world. If a fetus could be grown to full term from the moment of conception in an artificial womb, this will undoubtedly raise questions over abortion, especially from those already against it. Some even suggest that removing the need to give birth could change our evolution. As with all new medical research, the short and long term effects are still unknown, and the researchers are not convinced this will be a new method for mothers who are unable to have children. Instead, they intend for artificial wombs to be used by those who are born very prematurely, drastically improving survival rates of preterm children, whilst also reducing the complications commonly seen when they are in incubators.