Background: Extremely preterm infants born at the border of viability (22-24 weeks’ gestation) have high rates of death and lasting disability. Ex vivo uterine environment therapy is an experimental neonatal intensive care strategy that provides gas exchange using parallel membranous oxygenators connected to the umbilical vessels, sparing the extremely preterm cardiopulmonary system from ventilation-derived injury.
Objective: In this study, we aimed to refine our ex vivo uterine environment therapy platform to eliminate fetal infection and inflammation, while simultaneously extending the duration of hemodynamically stable ex vivo uterine environment therapy to 1 week.
Study Design: Merino-cross ewes with timed, singleton pregnancies were surgically delivered at 112-115 days of gestation (term is ∼150 days) and adapted to ex vivo uterine environment therapy (treatment group; n = 6). Physiological variables were continuously monitored; humerus and femur length, ductus arteriosus directional flow, and patency were estimated with ultrasound; serial blood samples were collected for hematology and microbiology studies; weight was recorded at the end of the experiment. Control group animals (n = 7) were euthanized at 122 days of gestation and analyzed accordingly. Bacteremia was defined by positive blood culture. Infection and fetal inflammation was assessed with white blood cell counts (including differential leukocyte counts), plasma and lung proinflammatory cytokine measurements, and lung histopathology.
Results: Five of 6 fetuses in the treatment group completed the 1-week study period with key physiological parameters, blood counts remaining within normal ranges, and no bacteremia detected. There were no significant differences (P > .05) in arterial blood oxygen content or lactate levels between ex vivo uterine environment therapy and control groups at delivery. There was no significant difference (P > .05) in birthweight between control and ex vivo uterine environment groups. In the ex vivo uterine environment group, we observed growth of fetal humerus (P < .05) and femur (P < .001) over the course of the 7-day experimental period. There was no difference in airway or airspace morphology or consolidation between control and ex vivo uterine environment animals, and there was no increase in the number of lung cells staining positive for T-cell marker CD3+.
Conclusion: Five preterm lambs were maintained in a physiologically stable condition for 1 week with significant growth and without clinically significant bacteremia or systemic inflammation. Although substantial further refinement is required, a life support platform based around ex vivo uterine environment therapy may provide an avenue to improve outcomes for extremely preterm infants.