Could a human mother one day skip being pregnant and going through labor by just providing and egg and using an artificial womb?
Recently a team of doctors from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia was successfully able to bring eight premature lambs to full term in an artificial womb outside their mother’s body.
While these are lambs and not humans, you can see the direction this is going.
Researchers dubbed the fake womb a “Biobag,” a good term to describe what’s basically a big plastic bag equipped with a circulation system and filled with a liquid that mimics amniotic fluid.
After being born at just over half their gestation period (equal to a 22 week fetus) the lambs spent up to four weeks in Biobags before being transferred to ventilators.
An artificial womb like the Biobag allows the lungs and other organs to continue developing more closely to the way they would inside a mother’s body.
Researchers connected the lamb fetus’s umbilical blood vessels to an apparatus that oxygenated them. The baby’s heartbeat was able to power blood flow, eliminating the need for an external pump.
Besides the oxygenator, the Biobags have two other crucial components: continuous fluid exchange and an umbilical cord connection.
Each Biobag is a single-use, closed, sterile environment, with liquid continuously flowing out of the bag to be purified—just as a mother’s kidneys would do during pregnancy.
Finally, the research team developed a new technique to connect umbilical cord vessels to an external nutrient source.
Biobag system design. Image Credit: Nature Communications
The baby lambs that spent several weeks in the Biobags were compared to lambs born by C-section at full term, and the differences in crucial organs like lungs and brain were minimal.
Aside from spearing you from the pregnancy experience, this will actually help bring preemies to full term in a way that’s healthier for them, Biobag-type technology could be used to treat babies whose mothers have an insufficient placenta or to correct congenital heart or lung issues.
This technology offers a way to help premature babies without causing additional health risks to mothers.
The authors of the paper state that their system “offers an intriguing experimental model for addressing fundamental questions regarding the role of the mother and placenta in fetal development.”
It will be years or even decades before we find out, but women who have had complicated pregnancies or agonizing deliveries—or those who simply didn’t enjoy being pregnant—will welcome advancements in a technology that would free them from being nature’s vessel of life.
It would pack a serious punch to gender equality, too.