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Transplanted Wombs Provide Potential Path to Fertility for Millions of Women

June 18, 2018, 11:28 PM UTC
Lifestyle During Pregnancy
LONDON - JULY 18: In this photo illustration a pregnant woman is seen stood at the office work station on July 18, 2005 in London, England. Under plans to revise paid maternity leave, an exteneded period of six to nine months will be offered for maternity leave from 2007. (Photo illustration by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Photograph by Daniel Berehulak—Getty Images

A baby born from a transplanted womb is no longer breaking news. The first successful birth from a transplanted uterus took place in 2014 in Sweden followed by the first in the U.S. in November.

Due to cost and complexity, the procedure is unlikely to become commonplace, according to Popular Science, but it may become practical and readily available. The cost in the U.S. could be about $250,000, roughly the same as a kidney transplant.

The path to successful uterus transplants dates back nearly a century, and it was only after a decade of research and then animal testing at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden that the procedure was approved for humans. Trials for wide-scale availability of the procedure are underway at Baylor University in Texas, where Popular Science‘s reporter conducted interviews with the team of doctors and researchers behind the work.

Baylor’s trial will involve 10 transplants. As of October 2016, the medical center said it had handled four procedures, but three were unsuccessful. The hospital hasn’t provided further posted updates, but Time magazine reported in December that there had been eight transplants, with just one successful birth.

Millions of women are unable to get pregnant or cannot safely gestate or deliver a baby. One in 5,000 girls born each year have a rare condition in which they have no uterus. Others have had hysterectomies to address conditions like cancer and fibroids. The procedure might also allow transgender women who were not born with a uterus to bear children.

Researchers in Sweden and Texas had to address ethical concerns, including whether the procedure was necessary given other options, including adoption, along with the risk for living donors. Transplants have been made from deceased donors, and the Baylor trial includes implanting uteri from both living and dead donors. The successful births so far came from living donors who volunteered. Baylor has had dozens of such women make the offer.

While American women who cannot get pregnant or safely gestate and deliver can use paid surrogacy, in which a woman gestates a baby on behalf of a parent or parents, that option isn’t available worldwide. It’s prohibited in many European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In other countries, such as the U.K. and Belgium, surrogates can’t be paid a fee. This makes a uterine transplant a potential option where no other exists.