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Now & Next: Saving more babies – in partnership with The Economist

Posted on 19 October 2023

Scientists across the world are racing to build the first clinically approved artificial womb. Will their efforts pay off? And if they do, could their technology be used for bad, not good?

This film contains scenes that some people may find upsetting, including those of very premature babies and one scene of animal research. 

Imagine babies grown in labs.  It sounds like a sci-fi cliché.  But a ground breaking team of experts across Europe are hoping to build the world’s first clinically approved artificial womb in order to save the lives of babies born prematurely.  With nearly a million dying every year the race is on.

Juliet van Haren
Time is really of the essence because we quickly have to provide the infant with oxygen.

Saving more babies

Sanne Basten
James was born at exactly 24 weeks.  He was really very, very tiny.  When he got my pinkie finger nail it was with his whole hand.

In 2012, Sanne’s son, James was born prematurely.  Unlike many premature babies he was put in an incubator.

Sanne Basten
The doctor’s told us his chance of surviving was 50%.  An incubator is a very hostile environment.

Tragically James died 2 months later.  While incubators save many lives, half of those born at 24 weeks do not survive in incubators. This is partly because their lungs aren’t yet sufficient formed to breathe air.

Sanne Basten
An environment more similar to the womb is I think the best solution.  We wish to help the parents and children who came after us.

And that’s exactly what Sanne is now trying to do.  Since 2020 Sanne has been an advisory board member to an elite team of scientists and engineers.  They are taking on an extraordinary challenge constructing an artificial womb.

Sanne Basten
What we really need is a liquid filled environment that protects the baby from air.  That would be a wish come true.

Professor Frans van de Vosse
Welcome and I think we can start the programme which is now on the...

Professor Frans van de Vosse leads the team hoping to make that wish a reality.

Juliet Von Haren
The part of our work package is to find alternatives for the birth procedure.

Coordinated by the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands the approach is innovative.  It’s as much mathematical as medical.

Professor Frans van de Vosse
My background is, is not medical sciences, my background is in physics.

How does our oxygenator work?

The 29 strong team includes global experts in computational modelling and industrial design as well as pregnancy and child birth.

The main challenge here is that the liquid filled chambers layer is not conductive and theses...

In this unique group each collaborator has different skills.  They are united by the goal of designing and building a womb that replicates the conditions inside a real one.  Good modelling is the key to success here.

Professor Frans van de Vosse
We predict weather by making a model of the stratosphere by using mathematical models.  We want to predict what will happen, in this case for the cardiovascular system of the baby inside the womb of the mother.

Other projects in this field are testing by placing baby animals such as lambs in bags of liquid.  But this EU funded team is using a very different beast.  Silicone rubber.

Professor Frans van de Vosse
We can hopefully postpone animal experiments for a while by making mannequins that can help us to mimic and simulate like a flight simulator what is happening in the system.

Juliet van Haren is in charge of designing the mannequins.

Juliet van Haren
You see basically the range of motions that we can achieve using these flexors and the motors that we have imbedded in our mannequin.  What I find very interesting about this project is that it is at the intersection of art, design and biology engineering.

One of the big challenges of this project is finding a way to safely transfer the foetus from the mother to the artificial womb.  But the team believe they have found an answer, a liquid tunnel.

Juliet van Haren
So the infant moves from liquid into liquid.

Once the baby is inside the liquid tunnel the umbilical cord can be cut.  Then after the baby reaches the artificial womb things get even more challenging.  The umbilical cord has to be quickly re-attached, this time to an artificial placenta.  If this takes more than a few minutes lack of oxygen will damage the baby’s brain.  If all goes smoothly the baby will spend the next four weeks receiving all its required oxygen and nutrients through the artificial placenta and womb.  The hope is that more premature babies will survive in these liquid filled polymer bags.  Compared with being in an incubator it should be easier for their lungs to grow enough to be able to breathe air.  Weeks later when the baby is around 28 weeks they can be safely placed in an incubator before being finally released to their parent’s care.  But to build a fully functioning artificial womb the team has to overcome other potentially fatal risks, not least blood clotting.

Professor Frans van de Vosse
The main problems we have now is blood tends to coagulate if it comes in contact with materials that are now owned by the body itself.

With so many obstacles to overcome it could be at least a decade before this technology is rolled out to make a difference in the world.  What’s more, it won’t be cheap initially.  And what about dystopian fears of opening the door to growing babies entirely outside the human womb.  The team are adamant that their technology cannot be used in this way.

Professor Frans van de Vosse
The idea that you could use maybe the system from the start to the end, the technology is not suitable for earlier situations. 

Sanne Basten

We want to save children and that’s the goal of the project.



Hi, I’m Tom Standage, Deputy Editor at The Economist Britain desk.  If you’d like to learn more about this topic click on the link opposite and if you’d like to watch more of our Now & Next series, click on the other link.  Thanks for watching and don’t forget to subscribe.

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