This past week, physicians at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia announced that they’d had remarkable success with keeping lamb fetuses alive outside a womb—in a plastic bag filled with warm amniotic fluid, with the fetus’ heart circulating blood through a filter to keep it oxygenated.
Astonishing pictures of wee unborn laminated lambs quickly spun up the media science-fiction reference engine. Someday, that might be a human baby floating in a next-gen artificial uterus. Talking heads name-checked Gattaca and Brave New World. You could get a whiff of Blade Runner in there. The idea felt like a creepy-but-cool technological incursion into one of the last things that connects humans to the wild. We’re never so reminded of our own animal nature as when we eat, bleed, defecate, copulate, or gestate.
It looked pretty nuts, to be honest. The lead researcher, fetal surgeon Alan Flake, tried to keep everyone’s feet on the ground. “If you can just use this device as a bridge for the fetus then you can have a dramatic impact on the outcomes of extremely premature infants,” Flake said during a press conference. Even if his team can get the “BioBag” to work on humans, its job would be to keep those infants alive until they’re mature enough to transfer into an incubator. Nothing else.