The Eindhoven University of Technology has developed an artificial womb for premature babies, and recently these efforts have received a 2.9m Euro grant to develop a working prototype for use in clinics. The womb simulates biological conditions by surrounding the baby with fluids and delivering oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that connects to the umbilical cord. The problem with the current design of incubators is that premature babies do not yet have fully developed lungs or intestines, so attempts to deliver oxygen and nutrients directly to such organs can cause damage. Guid Oei, a professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology said that at present, about one million babies worldwide die as a result of prematurity and that those that do survive are at risk of a range of disabilities. The research team hopes to have a working prototype of their artificial womb ready for use in hospitals within five years, which could be a world first.
Stateside, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia showed that the “biobag,” one variant of an artificial womb, was capable of keeping alive lambs that were born at the equivalent of 23 weeks of a human pregnancy. Over the week that they were in the biobags, the lambs continued the process of gestation. Once removed from the bags, the lambs grew up normally.
Oei and his colleagues plan on recreating the experience of being in the womb – complete with the sound of the mother’s heart. To achieve this, their prototype will include 3D printed replicas of human babies that contain sensors, and the artificial womb will not be a plastic biobag like the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s model. Of this, Oei said, “When they are in this environment, they just feel, and see, and smell, and hear the same sounds as when they are in the womb of the mother.”
Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, a lawyer at the University of Manchester raised a few ethical concerns about the technology. She has explored the bioethics of artificial wombs and mentioned that it may lead to questions about which babies it should be tested on and the long-term implications of being gestated in an artificial womb. Additionally, she said that there would also be questions about how such a gestation might be viewed by society. “It is clear that the legal and ethical issues emerging from the technology must be talked about now, in advance of the artificial womb becoming a reality,” Romanis said.