On Monday morning, a team of Swedish researchers announced a breakthrough for both organ transplantation and fertility. The group of cross-university scientists announced that they have carried out successful womb transplants in nine women. But that’s not all: they are now planning to get that group of women pregnant. Womb transplants have been attempted before, but a pregnancy via donor womb has never before been successful. Welcome to the future.
The team had initially prepared to transfer 10 wombs, but one operation was cancelled. The women who volunteered to donate their wombs felt they had no more use for their own — the operation they underwent was similar to a hysterectomy — and their relatives, who planned to receive them, had either been born without a uterus, or had had them removed.
Amazingly, all the womb transplants were successful, though that’s happened before: Research teams in Saudi Arabia and Turkey had also got this far, and one of the Turkish women with a transplanted womb even become pregnant. But after two months, the pregnancy failed.
So there’s never been a baby born from a transplanted womb, and the Swedish team is thought to be several steps ahead of similar efforts in Britain and Hungary to make it happen first. The Sweden scientists are cautiously optimistic about the upcoming operations, which will see all nine women try to get pregnant via IVF.
And if the pregnancies are successful? Well, for women who have lost a womb, or were born without one — the latter being a condition that affects about one in 4,500 women — the operation could mean a real chance for them to conceive. That said, the transplant-recipients still wouldn’t be able to become pregnant through sex alone: since the transplant operation doesn’t connect the uterus with the fallopian tubes, they’d need IVF.
Still, there are major ethical concerns with the Swedish approach. In Britain, where research teams are trying to raise funding for their own womb transplants, only dead or dying women are permitted to transplant their wombs to living donors. This is because the operation is risky, even more so than a radical hysterectomy, and is considered too dangerous to be lawfully done on living patients — even with their consent.
“[Dr] Mats has done something amazing and we understand completely why he has taken this route, but we are wary of that approach,” Dr. Richard Smith, who runs U.K. charity Womb Transplant UK, told the Associated Press.
Successful transplants of body parts — from the hands and the face, to the liver, lungs and kidneys — have become more commonplace over the last half-century. Last month, it was announced that the world’s first successful five-organ transplant had been performed on an (adorable) three-year-old.
Even though organ transplants themselves are often successful, there’s a dearth of viable organs, in part because the U.S. maintains an “opt-in” donor system rather than “opt-out.” (You can opt-in and become a donor here.) Every day, roughly 20 Americans at the top of the waiting list die without having been successfully matched to an organ.
So, what else is next when it comes to organ donation? Well, researchers around the globe are working on ways to combat the issues with donations: Some scientists are developing artificial organs in the lab; others are building organs from stem cells; machines that keep donor organs alive before transplantation are in development; and new meds are trying to minimize the chance the body will reject its new organs. All of those options are in their primary stages, but the medical community is hopeful that some, if not all, will ultimately be popular and effective enough to save the lives of thousands of Americans each year.
And let it never be said that researchers aren’t thinking outside the box. A neuroscientist recently published a paper suggesting that head transplants — actual transplants of your head, onto another person’s neck, and attached via the spiral cord — could be medically possible. Believe it or not, doctors have been practicing it on animals for decades.