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Partridge et al. Nature Communications 2017.

An artificial womb can keep premature lambs alive for four weeks and support normal growth and development, a new report shows. The researchers hope to apply the approach to human infants.

Why it matters: 30,000 babies are born prematurely (before 26 weeks of gestation) in the U.S. each year. Chances for survival — typically 30 to 50 percent — have improved for infants born early, but they can experience long-term health issues like chronic lung disease and delays in physical and cognitive development.

How it works: The system developed by researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia mimics a woman's uterus. The fetus is placed in a plastic film bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid and its umbilical cord is connected to a machine that oxygenates the lamb's blood and returns it and nutrients to the fetus.

Key features: The animal's heart pumps the blood through the system rather than a machine, which can strain an underdeveloped heart. Instead of air, the lungs receive liquid like they do in the womb. Open air incubators that are currently used can arrest lung development and potentially expose infants to pathogens.

What's new: Previous systems kept critically premature animals alive for a few days outside their mother's body. In the study with eight lambs equivalent in gestation to a human fetus at 23 weeks, the animals survived for up to four weeks inside the artificial womb. Their lungs, brains and other organs developed normally and they physically matured, gaining weight and growing wool.

What's next: The researchers are currently working on a preclinical study with the FDA and, if approved, anticipate the device could be tested in hospitals in 3 to 5 years. But major hurdles exist, including determining if a human umbilical cord can be successfully connected, devising the amniotic fluid and assessing the ultimate long-term effects of the approach.

Our thought bubble: By essentially adding an intermediate, artificial stage of development, the technology could open up thorny ethical questions about when a baby is technically born and for how long a fetus could — and should — be raised outside the womb.

Go deeper

Muslim families hope to reunite following Biden's travel ban repeal

Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Muslim Americans across the U.S. are celebrating President Biden's day-1 reversal of former President Trump's travel ban that targeted several Muslim-majority countries.

The big picture: The repeal of what many critics called the "Muslim ban" renews hope for thousands of families separated by Trump's order.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Health: Most vulnerable Americans aren't getting enough vaccine information — Fauci says Trump administration's lack of facts on COVID "very likely" cost lives.
  2. Education: Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic.
  3. Politics: Biden unveils "wartime" COVID strategyBiden's COVID-19 bubble.
  4. Vaccine: Florida requiring proof of residency to get vaccine — CDC extends interval between vaccine doses for exceptional cases.
  5. World: Hong Kong puts tens of thousands on lockdown as cases surge — Pfizer to supply 40 million vaccine doses to lower-income countries.
  6. Sports: 2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance.
  7. 🎧 Podcast: Carbon Health's CEO on unsticking the vaccine bottleneck.
Bryan Walsh, author of Future
4 hours ago - Health

Schools face an uphill battle to reopen during the pandemic

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

President Biden's plan to accelerate the reopening of K-8 schools faces major challenges from a still out-of-control pandemic and more contagious coronavirus variants.

Why it matters: The longer American kids miss in-person schooling, the further they fall behind. But the uncertain state of the science on the role young children play in the pandemic continues to complicate efforts to reopen schools.

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