Up to 40 percent of premature births in the UK are caused by a rupture in the fetal membrane. Previous attempts to repair damage to these membranes using a silicon seal or with platelets have failed.
In this study, published in the journal Tissue Engineering, human amniotic stem cells were harvested from placental tissue of healthy pregnant donors, who were undergoing delivery by caesarean section at the University College London Hospital. These stem cells were then grown in the laboratory on a scaffold framework consisting of compact collagen gel and fibroblast cells.
'We were able to manipulate the cells to make a material that is almost the same as a woman's natural membrane', Dr Che Connon, leader of the research team, based at the Reading School of Pharmacy.
Usually, labour is induced by the natural rupture of the membranes surrounding the baby when it is fully developed. Sometimes these fetal membranes can rupture early, triggering premature labour. Babies born before they reach full term are at risk of number of complications and have a reduced chance of survival.
For pregnant women with a ruptured fetal membrane, the artificial membrane can be used to replace the damaged membrane by keyhole surgery, which should prevent premature labour.
The artificial membrane 'retained structural and functional properties similar to normal amniotic membrane', said Dr Connon. 'It is tough and we are confident it would do the job and hold a pregnancy in place'.
Dr Connon hopes that human trials using the artificial membrane will begin in two years, and that the treatment could be introduced by 2016.