The fetal lambs were grown in a temperature-controlled, near-sterile environment and breathe amniotic fluid, as they would normally do in the womb.

Their hearts pump blood through their umbilical cord into a gas exchange machine outside the bag and electronic monitors measure vital signs, blood flow and other crucial functions.

The eight lambs were kept in the womb-like environments for over four weeks. During this time, their lungs and brains grew, they opened their eyes, grew wool and learned to swallow.

The study was carried out in the Center for Fetal Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP).

Mimics a real womb

Over the three years, the study moved through a series of four prototypes – beginning with a glass incubator tank and progressing to the current device, which had been dubbed the Biobag.

It contains the same key parts as a real womb. The clear plastic bag protects the fetal lamb and an electrolyte solution bathes the lamb in a similar way to the amniotic fluid in the uterus. It also allows for the fetus to circulate its blood and exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen.

“Our system could prevent the severe morbidity suffered by extremely premature infants by potentially offering a medical technology that does not currently exist,” said study leader and fetal surgeon Alan W Flake.

Flake hopes the Biobag will improve the care options for extremely premature infant babies who have “well-documented, dismal outcomes”, he says.

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