It may sound (and look!) like science fiction, but scientists have been able to grow lamb fetuses in “artificial wombs” for up to four weeks until their time of birth. This technology could have major benefits for human babies born prematurely—along with some important ethical implications.
Growing Lambs In A Plastic Bag
In April of 2017, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia published a paper in Nature Communications that detailed a major technological breakthrough: they were able to grow lamb fetuses for up to fur weeks in an artificial womb. Called the BioBag, the artificial womb is a sealed polyethylene bag that continuously circulates electrolyte-rich fluids via an “umbilical cord” tube—or, as the LA Times puts it, “it’s a big sterile Ziploc bag with tubes coming out of it.” The researchers were able to provide nutrition and oxygen via these tubes, NPR reports, as well as remove carbon dioxide.
The researchers started with lamb fetuses that were 3.5–4 months along, which they removed from their mothers via Caesarean section. The lambs were placed into the bags and closely monitored until the time of “delivery.” The lambs born via this unusual method all appeared healthy, with no abnormalities in their lungs and brains. One of the lambs is currently a year old and is doing well, the researchers told New Scientist.
The ultimate goal is to use this technology to help premature infants survive. Researchers are currently working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to develop a device that would support babies born around 24 weeks until they reached around 28 weeks, at which point their survival odds are much higher. One reason this is so important? Infants born prematurely can actually damage their developing lungs by breathing air, according to the study. With this new device, infants could still “breathe” amniotic fluid as they develop.
Of course, the device raises a number of sticky ethical considerations as well. Some researchers point out that the device, if used on humans, could redefine “viability” of a human infant, which might impact abortion laws, WIRED says. And while technology is still a long way away from growing a human fetus for the full term of a pregnancy, the possibility leaves some people wondering how this synthetic uterus might change our perceptions about life, birth, and motherhood.