Over the past decade, scientists have been incubating premature baby lambs in what could be the first artificial wombs. Researchers believe this technology could soon be used on humans, specifically ELGANs, or extremely low gestational age newborns — the preemiest preemies born before 24 weeks. Currently, about 40,000 to 50,000 infants are born this early in the U.S. every year, and only have a 50 percent chance of survival. Hopefully these little lambs can help.
The publication OZY reported that researchers from the University Of Michigan and the University Of Pennsylvania, along with Japan and Australian have made significant steps towards recreating the uterine environment. They’ve published scientific evidence that artificial placenta can extend a fetus’s life by several weeks, giving ELGANs crucial time to develop — as long as they’re lambs. But, according to Dr. George Mychaliska, one of the authors of the study, this technology could be available for humans within the next 5 years. And that’s pretty baaaadass.
Lamb levity aside, lung development is vital for infants born this early. The problem with the current treatment method is that, ironically, using ventilators on babies so premature can destroy their lungs in the process of keeping them alive. Perfecting the artificial placenta would allow these preemies to reach 26 or 27 weeks, at which point they’d be strong enough to withstand the ventilators. George Annas, Director of the Center For Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University’s School of Public Health, says that, in theory, it would also give parents and doctors more time to make “the most difficult decision in medicine.” For the parents, it’s unthinkable.
Skeptics are concerned that this technology won’t transfer humans. Dr. Mychaliska notes the fact that lambs were chosen because their lungs develop similar humans. Other concerns are that artificial wombs have been pursued for the past decade and have only marginally increased potential survival. It’s possible that development has been slowed due to all the complex ethical limitations of this type of ectogenetic research (including a 14-day limit growing fetuses outside wombs), rather than lack of efficacy. But for parents who have faced, or will face a premature birth, there’s likely little ethical conflict in their minds. More time and options means more hope. Even if it feels a little like The Matrix.