The Reporter
Issue 496, 23 February 2004
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'Virtual womb' to prevent premature births

A ‘virtual womb’ which will help prevent premature births, is being developed by researchers at Leeds.

The virtual womb, a computer generated model of the uterus, will help researchers understand why labour sometimes starts too soon. Almost one in ten babies are born prematurely in the UK. It is an important factor in infant mortality but the causes remain unknown.

Professor Arun Holden of biomedical sciences said: “Virtual-reality organs allow us to integrate our knowledge of cellular processes and understand the whole organ. It means we can test treatments and drugs with no risk to patients, as well as tailor specific treatments for a given individual.”

The uterus project will start to produce results in – appropriately – nine months. This period is needed to make sure that the virtual womb corresponds accurately to the real thing.

Professor Holden, perhaps the only man in Britain able to talk of “his” uterus, expects to be influencing clinical research within two to three years, and clinical practice soon after.

As well as preventing premature births, the virtual womb will revolutionise monitoring of uterus activity and health. Expectant mothers arriving too early or too late at hospital is a common problem. The new technology will give a greater understanding of uterine electrical signals and enable doctors to accurately predict the onset of labour.

The virtual womb project builds on the success of the virtual heart, pioneered at Leeds over the past decade and already used for basic and clinical research in institutions around the world. More virtual organ projects are in the pipeline, but research is limited by access to the high quality biological data needed to build accurate models.

Virtual tissue engineering is a growing field, thanks to increasing availability of supercomputers needed to accurately mimic organs. Professor Holden and his team have computers the size of rooms, with processing power measured in trillions of operations per second – more powerful than a thousand top-of-the-range PCs.

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