April 26 (UPI) -- An artificial womb could soon be used to support critically premature human babies. Scientists used the womb to successfully grow lambs born prematurely.
The artificial womb looks like a large plastic bag full of fluid. In fact, it is a bag of amniotic fluid. It's designed to replicate the environment of the uterus and protect the baby from infection as an artificial umbilical cord pumps oxygenated blood to the fetus' tiny heart.
In recent tests, prematurely born lambs placed inside the artificial womb continued to develop as if they were still inside their mother's uterus.
Any baby born prior to the completion of 37 weeks of pregnancy is considered premature. "Extremely premature" babies are those born during or prior to the 28th week of pregnancy. Every year, 30,000 babies born in the United States are extremely premature -- most are unable to breath on their own.
Advancements in healthcare and medical technology has steadily improved the odds for premature babies. But even if extremely premature babies survive, they're often left with permanent health problems as a result of their early emergence.
The recent tests featured eight lamb fetuses that spent between 105 to 115 days inside their mothers' womb. The premature lambs were the equivalent of a human fetus born during the 23rd week of pregnancy.
Inside the artificial womb, the lambs continued to grow. Their organs developed without defects, they opened their eyes and they grew white wool.
The success, detailed in the journal Nature Communications, suggests human trials aren't far away.
"I think it's realistic to think about three years for first-in-human trials," Alan Flake, fetal surgeon at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, said in a news release.
Researchers believe future use of what they call the Biobag will offer a less traumatic experience for both parents and premature babies, who are often subjected to surgeries and other invasive procedures. But most importantly, scientists believe the more natural treatment will boost health outcomes.
"If we can support growth and organ maturation for only a few weeks, we can dramatically improve outcomes for extremely premature babies," Flake said.