The world’s most premature baby was James Elgin Gill, born in Ottawa, Ontario, on May 20, 1987, at 21 weeks gestation. Though Gill beat the odds, surviving and going on to become a healthy adult, premature birth is the number one reason for newborn death. That’s because, before 24 weeks of pregnancy, lungs and other organs aren’t ready to do their job outside of the womb.
The length of a normal human pregnancy is 40 weeks, and before 37 weeks, babies are considered premature. According to the U.K.’s National Health Service, a stillbirth is when a baby is born dead after 24 completed weeks of pregnancy. If the baby dies before 24 completed weeks, it’s known as a miscarriage or late fetal loss.
But, what if you could recreate a womb? Would more premature babies survive?
Researchers hope that new artificial womb technology will give hope to premature babies and their families, but they are also opening up pandora’s box. After all, if doctors could grow a baby outside of a natural womb, how would that change pregnancy, birth, and parenthood as we know it?
Have Lambs Been Grown in Artificial Wombs?
Yes, unlike humans, lambs have been successfully grown in artificial wombs.
Sheep are an appropriate animal model for studying human fetal development because they share many similarities with humans related to placental development, metabolic function, and nutrient transport.
In 2017, a research team demonstrated that fetal lambs, the developmental equivalent to extreme premature human infants, could be physiologically supported in an extra-uterine device called a Biobag for up to 4 weeks.
The device, a bag filled with warm, sterile, lab-made fluid, mimics an amniotic sac and allows the lamb to breath and swallow like a fetus would. It is complete with an oxygenator that plugs into the lamb’s umbilical cord, which also removes carbon dioxide and delivers nutrients. The fetus’s heart pumps blood similar to how it would in a natural womb.
After the release of the BioBag in 2017, an Australian research team published research on the EVE platform in 2019, which similarly provides an in-utero experience for baby lambs.
Have Mice Been Grown in Artificial Wombs?
Lamb fetuses aren’t the only thing living outside of the womb.
Mouse embryos can also live outside the womb for longer than ever. In March 2021, after more than 7 years of trial and error, the Weizmann Institute of Science developmental biologist Jacob Hanna and his colleagues developed a new technique that allows mouse embryos to live until 11 days, more than half the 20-day gestation period.
That’s a significant increase from previous research, which only allowed embryos to live for one to two days. Growing mice that far along in a lab means that researchers can watch the development of limbs and organs.
Then, in August 2022, Hanna broke more ground, publishing a paper with his colleagues describing growing mice from synthetic embryos made from an assortment of stem cells. His work suggests the possibility of one day being able to grow replacement organs for humans.
Even more, Hanna is already at work applying the technology to humans. He is using his own blood and cells as a starting point for creating synthetic human embryos.
Are Bioengineered Wombs A Possibility?
In 2020, scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina seemed to break further artificial womb technology ground when they published research describing how they could create a bioengineered uterus using a small tissue sample from a rabbit’s uterus.
The bioengineered uterus functioned to support fertilization and pregnancy like a natural uterus.
Will There Be Human Trials of Artificial Wombs?
The transition of artificial womb technology from lambs and mice to humans poses a moral dilemma. While these technologies are promising, there haven’t been clinical trials on humans just yet.
Risks include cardiac failure from circuit overload, liver dysfunction due to improper nutrient supply, and brain injury, especially for the first human trials. The malfunction of the circuit also poses risk given the ‘delicate balance between adequate and excessive circuit flow.’
The first human trials will not be considered a “medical treatment,” but instead “medical research” given the risk for harm for the first subject. It’s possible, however, that the first trials will revolutionize pre-term care.
When Will Artificial Wombs Become Available?
Scientists in the Netherlands predicted in 2019 that they would have the technology to save the lives of premature babies within a decade. It’s unclear, however, when exactly human trials will start or when the treatment will become widely available.
How Much Will Artificial Wombs Cost?
The cost of an artificial womb is unclear, but it will be expensive. Consider that in the Netherlands, a group of researchers was awarded more than $3 million to develop an artificial womb prototype by 2024.
For the average person, in vitro fertilization is an expensive endeavor already, costing between $10,000 and $15,000 each round for as many as five rounds.
Donated eggs or a surrogate womb can cause costs to skyrocket above $100,000. An artificial womb, whether a medical device or a bioengineered uterus, could cost substantially more.