"Artificial womb" could help preemies avoid deaths and disabilities

So far, the scientists have tested it to fetal lambs and hope that as they further develop the device, they will be able to use it on human babies after five years. Scientists revealed that after four weeks, the fetus showed normal lung growth and brain maturation. The researchers say the system wouldn't change the limits of when a fetus can survive.

The study, published Tuesday, successfully kept unborn lambs alive in an artificial womb with nutrient-rich liquids.

If successful, Dr Flake says they could be in use by humans in a decade; aside from the obvious medical benefits, he says it could also save the U.S. health system $4b a year in medical costs. The growing fetus inhales and swallows the fluid, similar to what happens in a natural womb.

This artificial environment mimics the fluid-filled womb and has so far been applied in the case of premature animal babies.

Based on the study, the key to making premature babies survive is to treat them like fetuses inside the womb and extend the gestation period, contrary to caring for them in an incubator.

The goal is to see the babies through from 23 weeks of gestation to 28 weeks, when the lungs are mature enough for the baby to breathe air and the most severe health outcomes are no longer likely.

Flake stressed that the womb-like system is not meant to support premies any younger than today's limits of viability - not what he calls the more "sensationalistic" idea of artificially growing embryos. Critics, on the other hand, said that it raised a lot of ethical issues including the issue whether it would be acceptable to test it on human babies.

Now, before you start thinking this is one of those infamous scenes from The Matrix come to life, it's important to understand that these lambs were not conceived inside artificial wombs.

"They're reasonably normal in every respect we can tell", said Flake, adding the team plans to observe the survivors long-term to investigate any potential hidden morbidity.

Thanks to the relentless efforts of a team of researchers from Philadelphia, premature-born babies could, one day, have greater chances of survival.

The invention mimics the mother's womb, and could allow these vulnerable infants to continue to develop as if they were still in utero. It is about the development of new ways of treating extremely premature babies.

"If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies", he said. "This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants", Flake said in a statement.

Designer of the flow apparatus, Marcus Davey (also from CHOP) explains: "Fetal lungs are created to function in fluid, and we simulate that environment here, allowing the lungs and other organs to develop, while supplying nutrients and growth factors".