In 2012 more than 10 percent of births in the United States were preterm, and nearly 1 percent of births were critically preterm (younger than 26 weeks). These numbers point to a sobering truth: every year, hundreds of thousands of babies are born before they’re ready, requiring urgent medical care immediately after (and likely during) birth.
Coming into the world too early can lead to myriad health issues. Preterm babies, particularly those born before 28 weeks, face a host of challenges, including the fight just to survive.
And preterm babies don’t just face health challenges in the hours and days following their births — many are confronted with obstacles throughout their lives. Those infants who do survive may experience temperature fluctuations, respiratory issues, gastrointestinal and cardiovascular problems, and neurological problems like abnormal blood vessel development, or damage and scarring of blood vessels in the retina.
But investigators at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are on the cusp of an innovative approach to caring for these most delicate infants, one that could radically transform the way they are treated and significantly improve their outcomes.
Alan W. Flake, MD, an attending surgeon, director of the Hospital’s Center for Fetal Diagnosis and Treatment, and Professor of Surgery, Obstetrics and Gynecology, Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, has been leading a groundbreaking project on the development of an extracorporeal support of the premature infant (ESPI) system.
Far more than a standard incubator or isolette, the device Dr. Flake’s team has been developing is exactly what it sounds like: an external uterus designed to help preterm infants bridge the gap between their mother’s womb and the world.
“This is an enormously promising study,” said Dr. Flake. “Our system is designed, as much as possible, to avoid the deleterious effects of preterm birth.”
Read more about this exciting program in the Research Annual Report.