A panel of Government health advisors will meet today to discuss the ethics of growing babies in artificial wombs.
The technology has successfully developed in several animals in recent years, prompting the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to consider whether it should be trialed in humans.
Many experts believe it could be a game-changer if used to mimic the conditions of a womb and help treat health complications in the growing number of premature babies in the US.
Before the advance can be used in humans, researchers will have to show that the device helps infants grow and develop with lower chances of health issues than with existing technology.
In a 2017 study, a group of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia tested the technology for the first time and kept a premature lamb alive for 28 days in a sterilized plastic bag filled with fluid
America’s preterm birth rate has risen to its highest level since records began, a report from March of Dimes says. About 10.5 percent of infants are now born early, putting them at higher risk of development and mental problems. This was a rise of four percent or 18,000 babies on 2020, with the Covid pandemic thought to be the driving force
The Pediatric Advisory Committee, an independent panel of health experts, are meeting today and Wednesday via teleconference.
Though the two-day meeting will help guide the agency, the FDA will make its own decision and is not required to follow the advisors’ guidance.
At this stage, artificial wombs aren’t designed to grow a baby from scratch – although advances in the field have led some to believe that is on the horizon.
Instead, they would be used to care for the one in 100 infants born before 28 weeks gestation, which is considered extremely preterm.
It could also combat the infant mortality rate in the US, which experts have warned is ‘so much higher’ than in other developed countries.
Unlike conventional incubators in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), this technique uses an ‘extra-uterine support device,’ which mimics the conditions in a real womb.
The infant’s heart circulates blood through the umbilical cord into a machine that takes the place of the mother’s placenta.
Synthetic amniotic fluid enriched with nutrients flows in and out of the temperature-controlled, near-sterile ‘biobag.’
The aim is to provide an environment in which tiny premature babies can safely develop their lungs and other organs during the critical period from 23 to 28 weeks after conception.
The above map shows the preterm birth rates across all US states for last year and the nation as a whole (top right). The rates are shown in brackets on each state, with the color revealing what rating they were given. A key showing how each grade was awarded is shown on the right-hand-side
The map above shows infant mortality rates by states. Rates fell in 2021, but medical experts still warned that the US was one of the worst countries for infant mortality
This technology is still new and has mostly been used in animals.
In a 2017 study, a group of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia tested the technology for the first time and kept a premature lamb alive for 28 days in a sterilized plastic bag filled with fluid.
Before these artificial wombs, researchers had only been able to keep a lamb alive in an artificial system for 60 hours, and those lambs suffered severe brain damage.
Later that year, a team in Australia replicated the device and named it ‘ex-vivo uterine environment,’ or EVE.
In 2021, researchers at the University of Toronto tested an artificial placenta in fetal pigs, but they recorded blood circulation and heart issues.
Earlier this month, a team of scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel grew an entity close to a human embryo without using sperm, eggs, or a womb.
The embryo even released enough of the hormone pregnant women produce that turns a pregnancy test positive, resulting in a positive test result in the lab.
Artificial wombs could reduce complications of premature births, which have reached record highs in the US.
A report published last year by nonprofit group March of Dimes found that 10.5 percent of US births were premature, meaning they occurred before 37 weeks gestation.
This is a four percent increase since 2020 and is the highest figure to date.
The researchers warned that the country was at a ‘critical moment,’ and experts sounded the alarm that the US was ‘failing moms and babies.’
Mississippi had the highest preterm birth rate in the nation, at 15 percent of all births, followed by Louisiana at 13.5 percent, and then Alabama at 13.1 percent.
Rising rates of obesity and associated conditions such as type 2 diabetes are thought to be behind the rise, as well as the strain on healthcare services due to the Covid pandemic.
An infant’s lungs and brain finish developing late in pregnancy, so those born prematurely are at risk for health problems like trouble breathing, gastrointestinal issues, vision and hearing problems, and developmental delays.
The report also showed that America’s infant mortality rate dropped 3.7 percent last year to 5.4 per 1,000, but experts warned this remained ‘so much higher’ than other developed countries. The UK, France, Sweden and many other European nations have significantly lower rates.
The first day of panel’s hearings will be open to the public, but the second will be closed due to proprietary information being discussed, the FDA said.