"There's no intelligence test for lambs, but we think they're pretty smart lambs", said Flake.
If doctors could place a preemie inside of an artificial womb where it could spend its remaining weeks fully developing, this could completely change that baby's life. "This, in theory, could allow support of a premature infant for a period of weeks and thereby reduce, dramatically, its mortality and morbidity, and improve outcomes both short- and long-term". The lungs, brain and other organs were monitored during testing and they showed increase development during the time inside the artificial womb.
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but the researchers say their device is meant to be much more natural than the current best care options for extremely preterm babies. And they hope that the system can one day be used to help preterm human babies born as early as 23 to 25 weeks of gestation. They even grew coats of wool, and opened their eyes. "It's hard to describe actually how uniquely awe-inspiring it is to see".
Nevertheless, if all goes well, the researchers hope to test the device on premature humans within three to five years.
It is the most common cause of infant death and leading cause of long-term disability, according to the National Institutes of Health.
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Advances in technology have allowed many babies delivered after only 22 to 23 weeks to survive.
"What they've got is a system where the fetus is really existing very much as it would in the mother's womb", Anna David of University College London who was not involved in the study told Science.
In a weird turn of events, scientists have come up with an artificial womb resembling a plastic bag which can help keep premature lambs alive for four weeks outside of their own mothers' wombs and could one day be applied to premature babies.
The baby is able to digest nutrients from the laboratory-made fluid.
The researchers then attached the lambs' umbilical cords to a machine that exchanges carbon dioxide in blood with oxygen, the process that placenta normally does.
The lamb's heart circulates the blood, without the need for any other pump.