1. Health & Lifestyle

What is Artificial Womb and are we ready for it?

Abha Toppo
Abha Toppo

Are you planning for kids, but want to skip the whole pregnancy process? Well, there are chances for this to happen in the near future. An artificial womb or at least the capability to have one may soon solve your problem. But the question here is whether the society is ready for it or not?

The difficulty of ectogenesis development of the fetus outside of a woman from fertilization to full-term babyhood will soon be controlled more by legal and ethical matters than by technological and medical restrictions. Couples who embrace technology without reservation are the ones who will be eagerly waiting for it. But there will certainly be a few who will find the prospect disturbing.

At present, the survival rates are low for babies born at less than 23 weeks of growth. The complete or you can say perfect age record for survival is 21 weeks and 5 days that happened in Canada in 1987 and in 2010. The main problem for infants at that early stage of development is the lungs; as they aren’t strong enough to continue life. This is also when the fetus is treated prior to birth to accelerate lung development, and later supported with mechanical ventilation.                                                                      

The lungs actually are the basis for the concept of fetal feasibility; a notion that has come into play for years in legal matters surrounding abortion policy. But lung assist devices now under progress could considerably expand the survival window.

Generally, at birth, circulation of blood changes from fetal to post-birth pattern. In the fetus, venous blood returning from body tissues shifts through a pair of umbilical arteries to the placenta. And from there, blood goes through the women’s veins to the right side of her heart, and then to her lungs - where oxygen is taken and carbon dioxide is released. The left side of the maternal heart pumps the oxygenated blood via maternal arteries to the placenta. From there, it goes to the umbilical vein and back to fetus.

During birth, the pressure in the fetal pulmonary circulation suddenly goes down and the lung blows up. This enables the baby to oxygenate its own blood till the lungs are mature enough. The present equation will change if researchers are able to bring better lung assist devices into play. It is called ‘artificial placentas,’ as it takes on a major chunk of the job description of the natural placenta and of the women’s lungs.

At first, the role of the artificial placenta would be to supplement other treatments in premature babies born close to the 23-week danger zone, where survival is just 17%. The figure can go up, once the lungs are no longer the primary factor determining survival.

Moreover, the placenta has other jobs apart from managing the exchange of oxygen and CO2. It eliminates toxins from the blood and regulates sugar levels– a task that will later be taken over by the kidneys, liver and pancreas. And that’s where new problem arise if doctors are able to extend safe development rates into 20 weeks or less by resolving the lung issue.

Here in this article we have only been talking about artificial placenta version 1.0. Once that version is perfected, there will be modifications and improvements. Blood dialysis machines and other measures will be utilized in concert with artificial placenta 1.0, leading to versions 2.0, 3.0 or beyond.

And as scientists continue to search for ways to increase survival rates at early gestation stages, some others are looking at it from a different angle - how long can we allow a fertilized egg to grow in a laboratory setting prior to uterine implantation? Recently, researchers have proved that embryogenesis could proceed outside the womb under laboratory conditions for 13 days. But what is not known - is how much longer it could have gone because the 13-day period is not a technical limit. The researchers had to end the experiment due to an international agreement against study on human embryos aged 14 days’ gestation or older. Or we can say that there is no natural reason why the gestation could not have sustained to 15 days, 20 days, or even longer.

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