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Scientists have created an artificial womb. It seems to be working in animals, and the researchers hope that someday it can help babies born prematurely. But the prospect of fetuses and very young babies growing in labs raises a lot of questions, as NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Right now, many babies born way too soon often die. If they survive, Alan Flake of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia says many are left with terrible problems.
ALAN FLAKE: Cerebral palsy, mental retardation, seizures, paralysis, blindness, deafness. These kids are incredibly sick. They're incredibly damaged.
STEIN: So Flake and his colleagues created a device they hope will help someday.
FLAKE: What we tried to do is develop a system that mimics the environment of the womb as closely as possible. It's basically an artificial womb.
STEIN: This artificial womb is actually a big, clear plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid. A machine outside the bag connects to the umbilical cord to process blood, adding oxygen and nutrition and removing carbon dioxide.
FLAKE: Just like the fetus would be connected to the placenta.
STEIN: It's kept in a dark, cozy room where sounds of a mother's heart are played for the fetus to hear.
FLAKE: The whole idea is to support normal development, to recreate everything that the mother does in every way that we can to support normal fetal development and maturation.
STEIN: And so far, it seems to be working, at least on lamb fetuses, which scientists often use as stand-ins for human fetuses. Flake's team put eight fetal lambs in their artificial womb at the same stage of development as 23-week-old human fetuses.
FLAKE: They've had normal growth. They've had normal lung maturation. They've had normal brain maturation. They've had normal development in every way that we can measure it.
STEIN: So Flake thinks the artificial womb could revolutionize the care of premature babies.
FLAKE: If you can just use this device as a bridge, then you can have a dramatic impact on the outcomes of extreme premature infants. This would be a huge deal.
STEIN: Other experts agree. Jay Greenspan is a pediatrician at Thomas Jefferson University.
JAY GREENSPAN: The technological miracle that, really, they've performed here is a huge step to try to do something that we've been trying to do for many years, which is basically duplicate the womb.
STEIN: But some say the device raises a lot of troubling questions. Dena Davis is a bioethicist at Lehigh University. She questions whether it would be ethical to even test the device on a human.
DENA DAVIS: There are all kinds of possibilities for stress and pain with not, at the beginning, a whole lot of likelihood for success.
STEIN: And even if it works, Davis worries about this kind of technology going further.
DAVIS: I could imagine a time, you know, sort of "Brave New World," where we're growing embryos from the beginning to the end outside of our bodies. It would be a very "Gattaca"-like world.
STEIN: Women could be coerced into using artificial wombs by employers who don't want to pay for maternity leave or insurers who don't want to pay for expensive pregnancies. Scott Gelfand, a bioethicist at Oklahoma State University, says all kinds of things could become possible.
SCOTT GELFAND: If we have a artificial womb or a chamber that could be used to develop a fetus that's been removed from a woman's body until it's able to survive outside of the womb, you can imagine legislation in certain states which requires women who are having an abortion to put this fetus in an artificial womb.
STEIN: Flake says his team has no interest in anything like that and doubts it would ever become possible. He just wants to help save premature babies and hopes to start testing an artificial womb on human babies within a few years. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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