‘Paradigm shift’: Artificial placenta could revolutionize care for premature babies

© UMHealthSystem
Researchers at the University of Michigan (U-M) have begun animal trials on an artificial placenta – which recreates conditions inside the womb, and should provide significantly better outcomes for preterm babies, even those born before 24 weeks.

One in 10 births happens prematurely, with 1 million children dying globally each year as a result, according to World Health Organisation (WHO) statistics. Even those who survive are often left with breathing problems, cerebral palsy, developmental disorders and sensory organ problems.

“Although many of our current therapies are lifesaving, they are not designed for premature babies and are often ineffective or contribute to complications,” said George Mychaliska, the principal investigator and the director of U-M’s Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment Center, who is the lead researcher on the project.

“We thought, ‘Why don’t we solve the problem of prematurity by recreating the intrauterine environment?’ Maybe we should treat this tiny baby like a fetus. Maybe we should treat these babies as if they are still in the womb. This is a complete paradigm shift. Our research is still in a very preliminary stage, but we’ve passed a significant milestone that gives us promise of revolutionizing the treatment of prematurity.”

George Mychaliska © UMHealthSystem

The key mechanism of the artificial placenta is extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) – a process by which their blood is filtered through an external pump, which injects oxygen into it, without forcing their lungs to breathe.

“One of the gravest risks for extremely premature babies is undeveloped lungs that are too fragile to handle even the gentlest ventilation techniques."

"If a baby’s lungs are severely immature, they cannot provide the brain, heart and other organs the oxygen they need to survive,” said Mychaliska, who has acquired the nickname “fetus fixer” for his treatment of seemingly hopeless neonatal cases.

Even with rapid progress in this medical sphere over the past decade, in the UK, babies born extremely early – at 23 weeks of pregnancy and before – have a 15 percent chance of survival.

Although Mychaliska has been working on the concept of the artificial placenta for a decade, U-M recently conducted an animal trial, where five extremely premature lambs had their lives extended for a week.

Mychaliska’s lab has now secured a $2.7 million grant from R01 National Institutes of Health for the next stage of experimental trials.

"Our research is rapidly progressing. Given our recent advances, we believe that the artificial placenta may be used in premature babies in the next five years," Mychaliska said.