Baby incubators for premature infants are made to mimic the temperature inside the womb. Nineteenth-century incubators already featured a good level of hygiene, a supply of air and constant temperature. But for those who were born extremely early (at 23 weeks or even earlier) this is not enough.
In 2015, a group of scientists from the University of Michigan claimed to have made the world's first artificial placenta. "One of the gravest risks for extremely premature babies is undeveloped lungs that are too fragile to handle even the gentlest ventilation techniques" said George Mychaliska, the research leader and the director of U-M's Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment Center. "We thought, 'Why don't we solve the problem of prematurity by re-creating the intrauterine environment? Maybe we should treat these babies as if they are still in the womb". This conceptual change as led them to design an extracorporeal membrane oxidation (ECMO) system, or "artificial placenta" that uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung and back into the bloodstream. With this system the team managed to keep extremely premature baby lambs alive in the lab for weeks. The success ensured them 2.7 million dollars in funding to continue their research on human fetuses.
The placenta is a key organ that keeps the healthy growth of a fetus in the womb. It cleans out waste products of the fetus and protects the fetus from being attacked by mother's antibiotics. Without placenta, there will be no medium to deliver nutrition to the fetus. Multiple key hormones released from the placenta ensure a safe pregnancy throughout nine-month period. In case of emergency, the placenta works as a blood reservoir for the fetus, like a life-saving capacitor. This special organ grows alongside the fetus, as the baby approaches maturity, the placenta gains in size and weight as well. The recreation of the placenta would bring immense progress in the making of the artificial womb.
Newborn connected to the placenta by the umbilical cord.
Aside from the physical connection, there have always been debates on the psychological link the placenta facilitates between mother and baby. A smartphone company offers the possibility to record the mother's heartbeat and stream it for the baby in the incubator, as a try to shorten the distance between them. However, long-term effects of the lack of human touch on the development of the fetus are unknown.
Many believe that the bond between unborn fetuses and mothers is facilitated by the umbilicol cord and the placenta. In some cultures, after the baby is born the placenta is buried with a ceremony.
Hearts and words made of umbilical cords.
This article is part of the Artificial Womb research project by NNN. The goal of this project is to develop thought-provoking scenarios that facilitate a much-needed discussion about the way technology radically alters our attitude towards reproduction, gender, relationships and love in the 21st century. We highly value your feedback or input, contributions can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: World Economic Forum, Sarah Boccolucci, Buzzfeed