Doctors are developing artificial wombs in which embryos can grow outside a woman?s body. Scientists have created prototype wombs made out of cells extracted from women?s bodies. Embryos successfully attached themselves to the walls of these laboratory wombs and began to grow. Experiments had to be terminated after a few days to comply with in-vitro fertilization (IVF) regulations.
?We hope to create complete artificial wombs using these techniques in a few years,? says Dr. Hung-Ching Liu of Cornell University?s Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility. ?Women with damaged uteruses and wombs will be able to have babies for the first time.?
Liu and her colleagues removed cells from the endometrium, which is the lining of the womb. ?We have learned how to grow these cells in the laboratory using hormones and growth factors,? she says. They grew layers of these cells on frames of biodegradable material shaped like the interior of the uterus. The cells grew into tissue and the framework dissolved. Then nutrients and hormones such as estrogen were added to the tissue. ?Finally, we took embryos left over from IVF programs and put these into our laboratory engineered tissue. The embryos attached themselves to the walls of our prototype wombs and began to settle there.?
The experiments were halted after six days, but Liu now plans to allow embryos to grow in the artificial wombs for 14 days, the maximum permitted by IVF legislation. ?We will then see if the embryos put down roots and veins into our artificial wombs? walls, and see if their cells differentiate into primitive organs and develop a primitive placenta,? she says.
This research will help women whose damaged wombs prevent them from conceiving. An artificial womb would be made from their own endometrium cells, and an embryo would be placed inside it and allowed to settle and grow before the whole package is placed back inside her body. ?The new womb would be made of the woman?s own cells. so there would be no danger of organ rejection,? Liu says.
However, Liu?s research is limited by IVF legislation. ?The next stage will involve experiments with mice or dogs. If that works, we shall ask to take our work beyond the 14-day limit now imposed on such research,? she says.
Yoshinori Kuwabara at Juntendo University in Tokyo has removed fetuses from goats and placed them in clear plastic tanks filled with amniotic fluid stabilized at body temperature. He has kept goat fetuses alive and growing for up to 10 days by connecting their umbilical cords to machines that pump in nutrients and dispose of waste.
While Liu wants to help women who have difficulty conceiving, Kuwabara?s work is designed to help women who suffer miscarriages or very premature births. Kuwabara is trying to figure out how to give a fetus a safe home if it is expelled too early from its natural womb.
Both researchers believe that artificial wombs capable of sustaining a child for nine months will become a reality in a few years. ?Essentially research is moving towards the same goal but from opposite directions,? says U.K. fertility expert Dr. Simon Fishel, of Park Hospital. ?Getting them to meet in the middle will not be easy, however. There are so many critical stages of pregnancy, and so many factors to get right. Nevertheless, this work is very exciting.?
There are also serious ethical implications, says Dr. Scott Gelfand, of Oklahoma State University. For a start, there is the issue of abortion. ?At present, this means killing the fetus,? says Gelfand. ?But if artificial wombs are developed, the fetus could be placed in one, and the woman told she has to look after it once it has developed into a child.? If the artificial womb is combined with cloning technology, this raises the possibility that gay couples could give ?birth? to their own children. ?This would no doubt horrify right-wingers, while the implications for abortion law might well please them,? he says.
Gelfand warns that artificial wombs could have unexpected consequences for working women and their health insurance. ?They would mean that women would no longer need maternity leave — which employers could become increasingly reluctant to give. It may also turn out that artificial wombs provide safer environments than natural wombs which can be invaded by drugs and alcohol from a mother?s body. Health insurance companies could actually insist that women opt for the artificial way. Certainly, this is going to raise a lot of tricky problems.?
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