The Medical Futurist Explains – The Artificial Womb
Click-bait high-tech or healthcare headlines confuse and mislead readers, as more often than not they claim either superlative traits or hellish dystopias about innovations. In my new article series, I try to make sense of sensationalist news in healthcare as well as address the real purpose of digital technology and its ethical considerations.
Take the artificial womb. Instead of visualizing the utopian scene from The Matrix, where babies are not born, but “grown” in fluid-filled bags, the artificial womb will help save the lives of extremely premature babies in the future. Let me explain.
What happened? – Premature lambs were successfully gestated in artificial wombs
On 25 April 2017, Nature Communications published a study led by researcher Emily Partridge that provided the most successful demonstration yet of an “artificial womb”. Extremely premature lambs, a close animal model for human fetuses, were suspended in a liquid-filled, plastic-covered extra-uterine womb, allowing the lambs to further develop for four weeks. The researchers used eight lamb fetuses that were 105 to 115 days old—a level of development comparable to a 23-week-old human fetus. The small, pinkish living beings were floating, dreaming, eating and growing as if surrounded by “regular” amniotic liquid. According to preliminary estimations, animal studies will be completed within two years, and if approved, such artificial wombs might be tested on extremely premature human fetuses within 3-5 years. Amazing news!
How was it hyped? – In the future, people will be created and nurtured in artificial wombs
In the dystopic future, humans will no longer be born, but they will be “grown” in fluid-filled sacks resembling an artificial womb. Viable human beings would even be picked from fields full of artificial wombs, and then we would arrive to the world of The Matrix. And even if Neo will not have to fight agents and artificial reality in the future, news outlets contemplated that we inched closer to that reality with lambs nurtured in artificial wombs. Some others foreshadowed that we might change the concept of pregnancy completely. In the future, babies might not be developed in the mother’s but in a “biobag” entirely controlled by technology. The assumption here is pretty obvious: an artificial womb could replace the real one in the future regardless any physiological, psychological or other consequences. Moreover, as the process of technology overtaking healthcare is already on an advanced level, many hospitals should already have high-tech labs full of artificial wombs. Wrong!
How is it in reality? – Artificial wombs may save the lives of extremely premature babies
I have to emphasize that the artificial womb is an amazing innovation, although it is still in the early phases of its development. It helped develop a premature sheep for 4 more weeks. The device acted like the umbilical cord providing fresh blood and nutrients to the fetus. Also, it kept it at the right temperature, let it “breath” through fluids, move and sleep – and all this in a fluid environment. The team behind the invention will keep on testing it on animals before they would start human trials in about 3 years.
Thus, in the future, it will help save the lives of extremely premature babies, meaning born before 24 weeks, and also prevent them from having long-term medical issues later in their lives. When a premature baby is born, and air streams into the lungs, the developmental process of maturing the lung is damaged. By keeping them in an environment like what the womb provides (and letting them „breath” fluid), the development of lung tissues can be prolonged. Also, as the fluid-filled bag can better mimic life in the womb, it can help prevent infections often a prevalent risk in case of incubators.
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