Medical science has improved astronomically in recent years. Ailments and injuries which would have deemed incurable in the not too distant past now have solutions, and as a result, the average human lifespan is increasing. However, there are some problems which we are only just beginning to develop answers to - such as premature birth, which claims the lives of around one million babies every year.
Writing as a person who was born prematurely, I can't stress enough the toll this has on parents. Because of how small I was when I was born, my mom was unable to hold me until I was a few weeks old. After struggling to fall pregnant, it obviously broke her heart to know that she could only touch her newborn baby through an incubator. But this heartwrenching situation might not be the case for long.
This development is all thanks to the creation of an artificial womb which has been used to successfully grow lamb fetuses. After being born prematurely, they were placed into the "bio bag" - an incredible invention that artificially mimics the environment of the womb.
The lambs grew in the bio bag for a four week period, and during this time, their lungs and brains increased considerably in size, they developed fur, learned how to swallow, and their eyes even opened. As the pictures above demonstrate, these bags are filled with blood and fluid.
To see this baby lamb wriggle around in its artificial womb, check out the breathtaking video below:
Now, it is hoped that this invention could one day be used to help premature humans, although it has only been tested on lambs thus far. This could, quite literally, save the lives of millions over time, with babies born before 20 weeks having almost no chance of surviving.
This invention could also help women who are unable to carry children. If, for example, a woman has cancer, she cannot have chemotherapy without posing a risk to her unborn child, but the bio bag could enable her to not only keep her child but get the treatment she needs.
Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and lead author on the study which was published by the journal Nature Communications, however, has warned people not to get ahead of themselves when it comes to getting excited about the bio bag. This is because is it entirely outwith the realm of possibility to use the bio bag to grow a child from conception onwards.
"It's complete science fiction to think that you can take an embryo and get it through the early developmental process and put it on our machine without the mother being the critical element there," he said of the ability of the bio bag to act as a replacement womb.
The diagram below demonstrates how this incredible device works:
After all, the bio bag was never designed to replace the womb, but to offer babies an alternative way to continue developing if they are born prematurely and increase their odds of survival, Flake added, although it does contain the same key components.
In the bio bag, amniotic fluid is replaced by an electrolyte solution which serves a similar purpose, enabling the fetus to circulate blood around the fetus and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. Pictured below is one of the lambs which grew to term in the bio bag.
Flake hopes that the invention will help to improve the "well documented, dismal outcomes" extremely premature babies face.
Because they have not had a chance to develop properly, these babies require extensive support in order to stand a chance of surviving, which is typically given in the form of mechanical ventilation, medications, and IVs that provide nutrition and fluids.
Even if these babies survive, between 25% and 50% of them will suffer from health complications. "So parents have to make critical decisions about whether to use aggressive measures to keep these babies alive, or whether to allow for less painful, comfort care," says neonatologist Elizabeth Rogers, co-director for the Intensive Care Nursery Follow-Up Program of UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.
This is what a home womb has been envisaged to look like:
Rogers who was not involved in the study added, "One of the unspoken things in extreme preterm birth is that there are families who say, 'If I had known the outcome for my baby could be this bad, I wouldn't have chosen to put her through everything.'"
It's for this reason that scientists have been trying to create an artificial womb for years. The main challenge that they have faced has been in recreating the circulatory system which connects a baby to their mother. However, this has now been solved. It had been a problem because blood had to flow at just the right pressure, but the bio bag does this using a new kind of oxygenator instead of an external pump.
While this invention is undoubtedly an exciting discovery and could represent the beginning of a medical breakthrough, it has been met with a lot controversy, with people, amongst other gripes, claiming on social media that the sheep involved in the study have been treated cruelly.
"What their [sic] not telling you is [that] they induced the sheep to birth them prematurely. Yah that's real ethical. Second this can go bad real quick. First overpopulation, then harvesting humans for organs. It's just wrong on so many levels!" wrote Jenny Waters.
"I don't see how this can exist while abortion is legal. If these pre-born sheep are ACTUAL sheep, then the same MUST be true of humans pre-born, and we are murdering children. If this moves to human testing, abortion should be illegal," added Tabitha Wycoff.
"To those who are saying that this is unethical and playing god, well let me ask you something: did it not occur to you that this may be another gift God has given us to help premature babies. People are afraid of what they dont [sic] know and need to seriously get a grip. Until they lose a premature child they will never know how important it is to have advancements in medicine," remarked George Camarena.
In a world where increased lifespan has led to a larger elderly population, many of whom need round the clock care, the invention of a device that could lead to even more healthy babies has been interpreted as a bad thing by some social media users too.
"Great, more bullshit that can help increase the world population, because 8 million isn't enough. Just wait till we get to 10, then there isn't room for everybody," wrote Aumed Ramadhan, forgetting that the majority of the world's resources are not currently being used efficiently.
A small number of people found the bio bag an uncomfortable concept but admitted that it could do a lot of good.
"I'm not sure why this makes me so sad. It shouldn't. My brain knows this could someday save lives of extremely premature babies, but the image of these living creatures being grown in a plastic bag just makes me sad," wrote Jen Birmingham.
It was also rightly pointed out that this is not the first device to mimic Mother Nature and certainly won't be the last.
"This is amazing and incredible and anyone arguing this is 'unnatural' can just go ahead and stop eating corn, apples, oranges, lemons and potatoes -- and stop using shampoo, conditioner, or driving cars or using smartphones," added Karl Germyn.
Babies are the most innocent people in the world, and, in my opinion, any device which increases the odds of survival for those born prematurely can only be a good thing. No new mom or child should have to suffer more than necessary during their first few weeks in this world.