Not all pregnancies go to plan, and some babies are born too early. Premature or pre-term babies - i.e. those born before completing 37 weeks of pregnancy - can be at high risk.

The outcome for a premature birth largely depends on just how early the child is born, and the specialist neonatal care they have access to.

Fascinating new research published in Nature Communications has the potential to significantly improve their chances of survival and to lessen long-term complications associated with premature birth.

When born too early babies cannot breathe for themselves. Core organs including the lungs, digestive system, immune system, and skin are still underdeveloped and don't function properly.


Currently, neonatal units place these early babies in incubators equipped with ventilators, heaters, lights and tubes designed to protect the baby, artificially helping it to continue developing outside the womb.

To date, New Zealand's smallest and most premature surviving baby was born after only 23 weeks in the womb. Thanks to incredible work by neonatal specialists in Wellington, the child is thriving today. Many born this early, however, do not survive.

Last week, researchers from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia published their results from experimental treatment using a science fiction-like device - a possible alternative to the traditional incubator for extremely premature babies.

Called the "Biobag", the device is essentially a fluid-filled plastic bag that artificially mimics the conditions inside the uterus, and could be used as a hosting unit for premature babies.

Although it has not yet been tested on human babies, the research shows considerable success in treating premature lambs, with the lambs hosted for up to four weeks in the bags before being delivered successfully.

In the experiment, lambs as young as 104 gestational days (the equivalent of 23 weeks for human babies) were removed from their mothers using a caesarean section delivery and placed straight into the Biobag.

Their umbilical cords were attached to an external device which provided oxygen to their blood. The lambs then spent four weeks floating in the bag, surrounded by a synthetic amniotic fluid containing nutrients and chemicals designed to stimulate growth.

At 104 gestational days, the lambs' lungs are under-developed, and they would not survive on their own. After four weeks in the Biobag, however, the lambs showed lung development similar to normal lambs their age - after removal from the Biobag, they were able to breathe on their own with functioning lungs.


Extremely premature human babies are born with underdeveloped lungs. In order to provide them with vital oxygen, they currently have to be attached to a mechanical incubator which pushes oxygen into their lungs and starts the breathing process for them.

This mechanical action damages the tiny lungs of the babies, but the oxygen supply is of course required to keep the baby alive. If successfully transferable to human treatment, the Biobag invention would not require the lungs to start working until fully developed - oxygen would be delivered to the baby in the simulated uterus via the umbilical cord, avoiding lung damage.

Again, no human experiments have been carried out as yet, and there may be complications - the researchers know for instance that lambs' brains develop differently to those of humans.

The Biobag is now patented, however, and the researchers are working with the American FDA on improvements within the animal research before human clinical trials can start.

In what could be one of the biggest developments since in-vitro fertilisation, perhaps Biobag treatment will be the next big jump in innovation.

It really may help our most delicate babies get the best possible start in life.