Artificial womb system raises ethical debate

A system for bringing premature baby lambs to gestational term caused much online debate about whether the technology should be applied to humans.

15 January 2018

Gemma Conroy

FANCY

A Nature Communications paper released in April 2017 described the successful use of artificial wombs to sustain fetal lambs, but the notion of premature babies growing in fluid-filled bags caused heated online discussion.

Commentators assessed how the technology might reduce infant mortality and wondered whether it could influence abortion debates.

The paper scored 3,840 on Altmetric, making it the fourth most talked about article in the Nature Index in 2017. It ranked tenth in Altmetric’s Top 100 Articles 2017 list.

Alan Flake, a surgeon at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and his team designed an artificial womb system, called the Biobag, to sustain premature babies.

The Biobag consists of a plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid that is taken into the lungs, as it would in a womb. The umbilical cord is plugged into a machine that oxygenates blood circulated by the fetus’s heart.

The team tested the system on fetal lambs and brought them to full-term. During the four weeks they spent in the Biobag, the lambs gained weight, grew fur and developed healthy organs.

More than 350 news outlets covered the findings, including New Scientist, ABC News and CNET.

The Atlantic speculated: “A lab has successfully gestated premature lambs in artificial wombs. Are humans next?” The Age took a light-hearted angle: “Science of the lambs: Researchers perfect artificial womb that works as well as ewe do”.

Emily Matchar of Smithsonian Magazine considered the ethics: “Would testing the device on human babies, when early iterations are so likely to fail, be cruel?”

Social media feeds were flooded with the research. The paper was shared more than 800 times on Twitter and more than 60 times on Facebook.

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