Developing the 'Artificial Womb’: FET-open deep tech exploration
Interview with Professor Dr. Guid Oei, head of perinatal department Maxima Medical center and Perinatal Life Support project co-leader (Eindhoven, Netherlands)
Premature births in the 21st century are still a large obstacle to overcome, in both the developing and developed worlds. While premature infants born between 28 and 37 weeks of gestational age often live a healthy life, infants born extremely premature (EP), i.e. <28 weeks, are at high risk of severe health complications.
Researchers at TU Eindhoven and their partners are aiming to develop an “artificial womb”, which would work as a double for the natural maternal womb in cases of preterm births. The Perinatal Life Support (PLS) project aims to protect EP infants by providing an almost-natural environment for better cardiorespiratory development.
It can conserve energy and retain space for developing EP birthed infants. The ultimate goal? Prevention of early deaths and the ability to allow a fetus to finish growing into a healthy, independent state.
Horizon 2020 FET funding awarded
The PLS project received the maximum grant amount under the Horizon 2020 FET (Future and Emerging Technologies) Open Research Program, a fiercely competitive grant scheme, highlighting the excitement around this potential technology of the future. Achieving this major award required an exceptional proposal written with Catalyze consultant, that successfully conveyed the radical vision of a breakthrough PLS system, while weaving together a purpose built, collaborative and interdisciplinary team.
We sat down to hear about the process of reaching the grant agreement with the co-leader of the project Professor Dr. Guid Oei, who directed the proposal along with project coordinator Professor Frans van de Vosse.
The partnerships with this project were of utmost value
“We started with many more partners, European partners, but in the end we had to find one or two new partners because the others didn’t exactly match what we needed.
Lifetech has a lot of experience with perfusion systems. We needed the umbilical cord and artificial placenta. The focus of this group is keeping organs alive. So when you have a heart of a cow or some kind of animal, they make a living heart just for surgeons to practice their skills. They have a lot of experience with this, traveling the world with their experience, teaching surgeons how to replace valves in a heart. When you can keep a heart alive, you can also keep a baby alive in the artificial womb.
Dr. Oei explains, “It was the challenge to take these elements and with the help of Catalyze turning it into the story that we submitted to the FET-open.”
The last partner to join of course was very important- Aachen. Because they had done some work in this field a couple of years ago. And it makes it more feasible that we are going to fulfill the project now because they already had this artificial placenta. It was of course a surprise when we won such a prestigious award, but it certainly felt good.
All 5 partners met in Eindhoven on November 13th and 14th, 2019 for the kick-off meeting of the PLS project: UK RWTH Aachen University (Germany), Politecnico di Milano (Italy) and TU/e, LifeTec Group, and Nemo Healthcare (The Netherlands). All partners offer essential expertise in the fields of cardiology, gynecology, biology, physics, and computer and simulation modelling to develop the necessary components for the artificial womb to provide perinatal life support.
Adapting the project vision to meet FET-Open requirements
While the artificial womb is integral to the project, Guid tells us how the stringent FET-Open requirements required the development of something “a step beyond”.
“Here at the TUE we were brainstorming with consultant Heike Schmidlin from Catalyze thinking, what can we add to this? And then we thought about these full-bodied mannequins, but very small. As small as my hand! We had already developed these kinds of interactive physical models, 3D-printed about maybe 3 kilograms for preterm babies of 36 weeks. But now we had to for extremely premature babies of only 400 grams, 24 weeks.
The idea was if we had these types of lifelike mannequins, then we do not need animal experiments anymore. This was important because when you’re working with Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) and you’re already working with an existing idea by other groups, it’s not emerging enough. But not without that unique element.
These kinds of 3D printed fetal mannequins with all kinds of sensors are first done as a dummy as part of the artificial womb, which is important for perinatal life support. But we also put sensors in this fetal mannequin and this is important because using these kinds of simulators prevents the use of animal experiments, which is also important for other kinds of studies.
It’s been a journey…
From the early stages of the development of this project to now, with the brainstorm and assembly of a successful consortium, Guid recalls the journey, while looking forward to the next steps.
“We have to find new PhD students, and there are already students who applied who had seen the news articles and the BBC coverage. I expect a lot of attention from researchers and let’s hope that we’ll be able to meet the expectations of the many elements of this important project.
We are going to now develop the basic model, but it’s nice to think ahead for improvements to this model which should be ready in 5 years. However it’s nice to think about the design, and forecast future challenges and be prepared to meet them. Particularly with parental attachment, so there are nice new projects coming up as part of this.
Sharing wisdom with other researchers trying to make a change
“Everything is possible. This is of course a kind of a moonshot, but when you have these ambitious goals and you’re able to get the right people, I think everything is possible. It’s important to share your ideas with all kinds of experts, get feedback, figure out which way to go. In the end, everything is just going to need some belief in it. Of course some people are skeptical. But now you see this grant, you see that there is support behind this project and belief behind this project, and that is a major step forward.”
Catalyze is proud to have played a supporting role in this project with Prof. Dr. Guid Oei and TU Eindhoven. The award is a stellar achievement since only 3% of FET-open applicants are successful, making this one of the most prestigious success stories.
Win: Horizon 2020 €2.9 million