When babies are born preterm, breathing can be a challenge due to lungs that aren’t quite ready for the task. Researchers at Canada’s McMaster University have now created a device that can help the little ones get the oxygen they need while continuing their development outside the womb.
“Typically, a newborn immediately takes over breathing, feeding, and other organ functions that have been provided in utero via the placenta,” said Christoph Fusch, a McMaster faculty member in Pediatrics and Chief of Pediatrics at Nuremberg General Hospital in Germany. “When this transition is disturbed due to disease or immaturity, our device will enable neonatal caregivers to mimic the intrauterine supply. It will improve survival, reduce brain damage, and improve long-term health in preterm and term newborns with life-threatening postnatal lung failure.”
The device, which has just gone through a proof-of-concept trial using a piglet, would attach to a child’s umbilical cord. As the infant’s heart beats, blood would be pumped through the device, which contains a super-thin membrane measuring about half the thickness of a human hair and resembling the lining of the human lungs. As blood flows through channels containing the membrane, carbon dioxide is released, and oxygen is introduced.
Because it is a closed system, the blood is protected from outside infection and, because it is powered through the pumping of the infant’s heart, no external power is needed, meaning it can be deployed in a wide range of scenarios and is free from failure due to power outages. The device is also relatively portable.
“Developing this device seemed like an impossible mission in so many ways,” said Mohammadhossein Dabaghi, a post-doctoral fellow at McMaster’s Department of Medicine. “A pumpless device that is capable of gas exchange in ambient air is something that one would expect to be bulky, but we were able to keep it compact, and by using microfabrication technologies we developed in our group.”
The next step for the team is to conduct testing with larger animals and to seek regulatory approval for use on humans. The researchers, whose work was published in the peer-reviewed journal, Advanced Science, says that process will take up to eight years, after which time the device could be ready for clinical use. The researchers hope that their device could be combined with other developing technologies such as nutritional systems to become a full support system for preterm infants.
“Our research takes Mother Nature as a blueprint,” said Niels Rochow, a former fellow in Neonatology at McMaster and now a staff neonatologist at Nuremberg General Hospital. “The artificial placenta will allow gentle and efficient care in newborn babies with life-threatening postnatal lung failure. Families will benefit from having babies with better chances for a normal life.”