Researchers at the University of Michigan have begun trials on an artificial placenta – which recreates conditions inside the womb, and should provide significantly better outcomes for preterm babies, even those born before 24 weeks.
One in 10 births happens prematurely, with 1 million children dying globally each year as a result, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics. Even those who survive are often left with breathing problems, cerebral palsy, developmental disorders and sensory organ problems.
“Although many of our current therapies are lifesaving, they are not designed for premature babies and are often ineffective or contribute to complications,” said George Mychaliska, the lead researcher on the project.
“We thought, ‘Why don’t we solve the problem of prematurity by recreating the intrauterine environment?’ Maybe we should treat this tiny baby like a fetus. Maybe we should treat these babies as if they are still in the womb. This is a complete paradigm shift. Our research is still in a very preliminary stage, but we’ve passed a significant milestone that gives us promise of revolutionizing the treatment of prematurity.”
The key mechanism of the artificial placenta involves filtering their blood through an external pump, which injects oxygen into it, without forcing their immature lungs to breathe.
“One of the gravest risks for extremely premature babies is undeveloped lungs that are too fragile to handle even the gentlest ventilation techniques. If a baby’s lungs are severely immature, they cannot provide the brain, heart and other organs the oxygen they need to survive,” said Mychaliska, who has acquired the nickname “fetus fixer” for his treatment of seemingly hopeless neonatal cases.
Following a succesful trial in which external placentas were used to keep very premature lambs alive, Mychaliska’s lab has now secured a $2.7 million grant from The National Institutes of Health for the next stage of experimental trials.
“Our research is rapidly progressing. Given our recent advances, we believe that the artificial placenta may be used in premature babies in the next five years,” Mychaliska said.