Artifical womb: Is it the end of natural pregnancy?

Do you get turned off by the whole pregnancy thing, but you still want to have babies? An artificial womb might just be your answer. The big question that lies is whether the society is ready for it or not?

Ectogenesis is known as the development of the fetus outside of a mother from fertilization to full-term infancy. It can be solved by using an artificial womb. But this will soon be dominated more by ethical and legal matters than by technological and medical limitations.

What is the State of this technology?

Currently, survival rates are low for infants born at less than 23 weeks of gestation.  The main problem for newborns at that early stage of development is the lungs. They simply aren’t strong enough to sustain life. That’s even when the fetus is treated before birth to accelerate lung development and then supported with mechanical ventilation.

At birth, the pressure in the fetal pulmonary circulation suddenly drops, and the lungs inflate. That enables the newborn to oxygenate its blood as long as the lungs are mature enough. If the lungs are underdeveloped, mechanical ventilation can compensate to a degree, but otherwise, lung inflation fails, and the infant dies.

The current equation changes if researchers can bring better lung assist devices into play. They call them ‘artificial placentas’ because they take on a major chunk of the job description of the natural placenta and the mother’s lungs.

Initially, the role of an artificial placenta would be to supplement other treatments in premature infants born near that 23-week danger zone, where survival is currently just 17 percent.

To be sure, the placenta has other jobs in addition to managing the exchange of oxygen and CO2. It also removes toxins from the blood and regulates blood sugar levels jobs that will later be taken over by the liver, kidneys, and pancreas. And that’s where problems arise if doctors can extend safe gestation rates into 20 weeks or less by solving the lung problem. Other organs won’t be ready to do their jobs.

How long can we allow a fertilized egg to develop in a laboratory setting before uterine implantation? Recent studies were published in the journal Nature, in which researchers showed that embryogenesis could proceed outside the womb under laboratory conditions for 13 days.

What’s unknown is how much longer it could have gone. That’s because the 13-day time period is not a technical limit. The team had to terminate the experiment because of an international agreement against research on human embryos aged 14 days gestation and older. In other words, there’s no biological reason why the gestation could not have continued to 15 days gestation, 20 days, or longer.

And as science pushes forward on both the premature birth front and the implantation front, there will be a point where the two paths merge. Eventually, it could be possible for the entire gestation to occur outside the natural womb. Whether that happens sooner or later, the incremental advances are on a collision course with current paradigms surrounding biomedical policy debates, including abortion and human stem cell research.

The original article was published in The genetic literacy project

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