Every day in 2021, 6,800 infants died in the first 28 days of life. For decades, scientists have been trying to find methods to treat premature infants, and one of the solutions they came up with was artificial wombs. Even though these wombs may seem like devices out of a sci-fi movie, scientists' main goal, at least for now, is to invent devices that will help treat premature infants rather than devices that will help grow a whole new human out of just an embryo outside of a human body.
Developments on the issue
The main cause of death in premature infants is that their organs are not yet developed and functioning properly. Artificial wombs help create an environment like a mother’s womb in order to, in a way, trick the infant into thinking that it is still in its mother’s womb and is still developing. Scientists haven’t succeeded in the production of a completely functioning artificial womb yet, but they are making progress. In 2019, Matt Kemp and his colleagues were able to build artificial wombs that can support lambs that are 24 weeks old until they are mature enough to get out of the womb. Artificial wombs in simple terms are bags that contain amniotic fluid, which is a fluid found in a normal womb, and an infant which has tubes attached to it so that it can breathe. The biggest obstacle scientists faced was concerning oxygen since premature infants’ lungs are not yet developed enough to breathe, but they were able to overcome it by placing tubes in the fetus’s umbilical cord to transfer the oxygenated and deoxygenated blood in between the fetus’s heart and the artificial placenta. The problem with this technique was that it couldn’t be used without thinning the blood of the infant since it resulted in clotting. Premature infants have organ immaturity, which can cause brain bleeding, and if the blood is thinned on top of this risk, brain bleeding becomes almost unavoidable. Therefore, this problem was considered one of the biggest obstacles that scientists faced in the development of artificial wombs. In order to solve this, scientists at Michigan University applied a special layering to the spot that releases nitric oxide, which resulted in the prevention of clotting without causing anticoagulation. This enabled the artificial placenta to support the premature sheep that was tested on for one week.
This new development also helped get rid of one of the biggest risks surrounding artificial wombs and most probably opened the way for human experiments in the near future. Hence, the future of artificial wombs seems promising if its goal is to treat immature infants, even though there are many more developments that should be made on the topic in order to treat even more premature infants, which will require many more years to be devoted to research. But it is still a question whether we will be able to grow babies out of just an embryo without getting any help from a human body, like in The Matrix, since the future still seems very vague.
Experiments on animals and possibly humans
The most developed artificial womb invented till now is called “EXTEND” which was invented by Alan Flake and Marcus Davey, who are scientists at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. EXTEND has already been tested with more than 300 lamb infants and some piglets, which were able to develop in the artificial womb for three to four weeks. Based on these promising results, experiments on humans are expected to start in the near future, although there hasn't been any official permission given to scientists yet. If experiments are permitted, the procedure will look like this: First, the baby will be delivered by a cesarean section and have the aforementioned tubes placed in its umbilical cord. Then, the infant will finally be transferred to the artificial womb and treated there. The experiment is predicted to be conducted on infants that are 22-23 weeks old and on infants that have no hope of surviving without the use of artificial wombs. Of course, there are some tricky aspects to these criteria since it can’t really be guessed whether an infant has no other chance to survive. For example, there were several cases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia where 21-week-old infants, who normally would be suitable for these criteria, were able to survive no matter how undeveloped they were. This situation also raises many ethical questions since the infants aren’t the ones deciding whether they will be used in an experiment; their parents are. While the law states parents are responsible for these kinds of decisions, in this situation, infants have no input since they are too young and have no idea what is going on. Therefore it appears that they are treated more like objects than humans.
The new developments on the subject show that artificial womb technology can actually be implemented in the near future if it is used to treat premature infants, but even though scientists don’t want to replace the mom’s place in childbirth for now if they ever change their mind there needs to be a lot more research done on the subject for artificial wombs to be used to develop babies completely outside of a human body. But before thinking about the implementation of artificial wombs, the ethical problems surrounding the topic should be solved since they are the main obstacles that are delaying the experiments and therefore developments on the subject.
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