Here’s the science headline of the week: Giant Ziplock Baggies Full of Lambs Are Going to Change Everything. Excerpt:
In April, researchers announced they had managed to keep several extremely premature lambs alive and growing in artificial wombs. After spending up to four weeks in a clear plastic “extra-uterine device” at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, each sheep transformed from a decidedly undercooked fetal specimen to a much more robust critter with long limbs and a fluffy wool coat, the sort of animal you wouldn’t be terribly alarmed to see plop to the ground in a field on a spring afternoon.
The setup strongly resembles a sous vide cooking apparatus: a tiny, tender lamb floats in a large plastic ziplock, hooked up to tubes and monitors. But a video clip posted by the researchers has the emotional heft of feeling a fetus kick when you put a hand on a pregnant woman’s belly. Visible through the clear plastic, the lamb’s hooves twitch gently as it snuffles its nose and wiggles its ears.
The lambs in the experiment were selected for their developmental similarity to human babies born right on the edge of viability, or about four months premature. Babies born that early are equal parts horrifying and marvelous. Tiny creatures with organs visible through their translucent skin, they’re often called “miracle babies.” But there’s nothing particularly mysterious about those little beings curled up in nests of tubes and wires; they live because of the inspiration and hard work and risk-taking and study and pain of hundreds of people.
I find this interesting for several reasons, not least of which is because I’m the father of a 30-week preemie (2 pounds, 4 ounces) who is now 21, a college student and a 2nd degree black belt – she turned out pretty great, but lots of preemies struggle with developmental issues.
If this kind of research can help those tiny, tiny babies develop normally and go on to lead normal lives, that’s a great thing. The last few decades have already seen great advances in neonatal intensive care and the survival rates of premature infants; a few days after our preemie daughter was born, the doctor attending caught me in the hallway outside Mrs. Animal’s room and told me, “you know, twenty years ago they probably both would have died.” As it was, it was over a month before the docs were certain our little Peanut was going to live.
Live she did, and now she’s tough, smart, confident and very, very capable. This kind of research will help more preemies grow up to be like Peanut – and believe me, the country could use more young adults like her.