The Horizon 2020 EU programme has granted Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) researchers €2.9 million to create a prototype for the world’s first artificial womb. The artificial womb could considerably improve the survival rate of premature infants as currently around one million babies die worldwide due to prematurity.
Last year TU/e professors introduced the artificial womb during Dutch Design Week. Initiators include Professors Frans van de Vosse, Loe Feijs and Guid Oei – the latter of whom is also a gynecologist at Máxima Medisch Centrum.
Oei says “The goal is to help extremely early born children with an artificial uterus through the critical period of 24 to 28 weeks.” Currently about half of these infants die within 24 weeks of pregnancy and babies who survive may face chronic conditions like brain damage, decreased lung function, and lifelong blindness. Oei says, “With every day that the growth of a fetus of 24 weeks in an artificial uterus is prolonged, the chance of survival increases. If we can extend the fetal growth of these children in the artificial uterus to 28 weeks, the risk of premature death is reduced to 15%.”
The artificial womb will reportedly provide premature babies respiration but differs from current incubators in that it mirrors biological conditions, “with the baby surrounded by fluids and receiving oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that will connect to their umbilical cord.” The womb has no oxygen ventilation through the lungs and will simulate the environment of a womb to include the sound of a mother’s heartbeat. AD reports that Frans van de Vosse says the system will monitor the baby’s heartbeat, oxygen supply, and brain and muscle activity which helps the doctor “quickly decide on the settings of the artificial uterus.”
In addition to the artificial womb, researchers are developing a fetal manikin to trial in the artificial womb. Oei reportedly said he and his colleagues will use 3-D printing to print infants and fit them with sensors in order to accurately simulate a premature babies response to the artificial womb before introducing the womb for use on real infants.
The team hopes to launch the artificial womb prototype in clinics within five years.