Artificial Wombs Are Getting Closer to Reality for Premature Babies
In 2017, researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia grew extremely preterm lambs from hairless to fluffy inside a "biobag," a dark, fluid-filled bag designed to mimic a mother's womb.
"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies."
This happened over the course of a month, across a delicate period of fetal development that scientists consider the "edge of viability" for survival at birth.
In 2019, Australian and Japanese scientists repeated the success of keeping extremely premature lambs inside an artificial womb environment until they were ready to survive on their own. Those researchers are now developing a treatment strategy for infants born at "the hard limit of viability," between 20 and 23 weeks of gestation. At the same time, Dutch researchers are going so far as to replicate the sound of a mother's heartbeat inside a biobag. These developments signal exciting times ahead--with a touch of science fiction--for artificial womb technologies. But is there a catch?
"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies," says Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist and lawyer at The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. "These technologies can decrease morbidity and mortality for infants at the edge of viability and help them survive without significant damage to the lungs or other problems," she says.
It is a viewpoint shared by Frans van de Vosse, leader of the Cardiovascular Biomechanics research group at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He participates in a university project that recently received more than $3 million in funding from the E.U. to produce a prototype artificial womb for preterm babies between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation by 2024.
The Eindhoven design comes with a fluid-based environment, just like that of the natural womb, where the baby receives oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that is connected to the baby's umbilical cord. "With current incubators, when a respiratory device delivers oxygen into the lungs in order for the baby to breathe, you may harm preterm babies because their lungs are not yet mature for that," says van de Vosse. "But when the lungs are under water, then they can develop, they can mature, and the baby will receive the oxygen through the umbilical cord, just like in the natural womb," he says.
His research team is working to achieve the "perfectly natural" artificial womb based on strict mathematical models and calculations, van de Vosse says. They are even employing 3D printing technology to develop the wombs and artificial babies to test in them--the mannequins, as van de Vosse calls them. These mannequins are being outfitted with sensors that can replicate the environment a fetus experiences inside a mother's womb, including the soothing sound of her heartbeat.
"The Dutch study's artificial womb design is slightly different from everything else we have seen as it encourages a gestateling to experience the kind of intimacy that a fetus does in pregnancy," says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, an assistant professor in biolaw at Durham Law School in the U.K. But what is a "gestateling" anyway? It's a term Romanis has coined to describe neither a fetus nor a newborn, but an in-between artificial stage.
"Because they aren't born, they are not neonates," Romanis explains. "But also, they are not inside a pregnant person's body, so they are not fetuses. In an artificial womb the fetus is still gestating, hence why I call it gestateling."
The terminology is not just a semantic exercise to lend a name to what medical dictionaries haven't yet defined. "Gestatelings might have a slightly different psychology," says Romanis. "A fetus inside a mother's womb interacts with the mother. A neonate has some kind of self-sufficiency in terms of physiology. But the gestateling doesn't do either of those things," she says, urging us to be mindful of the still-obscure effects that experiencing early life as a gestateling might have on future humans. Psychology aside, there are also legal repercussions.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the "inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being," with "everyone" including neonates. However, such a legal umbrella is absent when it comes to fetuses, which have no rights under the same declaration. "We might need a new legal category for a gestateling," concludes Romanis.
But not everyone agrees. "However well-meaning, a new legal category would almost certainly be used to further erode the legality of abortion in countries like the U.S.," says Johnston.
The "abortion war" in the U.S. has risen to a crescendo since 2019, when states like Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia passed so-called "fetal heartbeat bills," which render an abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected. The situation is only bound to intensify now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court's fiercest champions for abortion rights, has passed away. If President Trump appoints Ginsburg's replacement, he will probably grant conservatives on the Court the votes needed to revoke or weaken Roe v. Wade, the milestone decision of 1973 that established women's legal right to an abortion.
"A gestateling with intermediate status would almost certainly be considered by some in the U.S. (including some judges) to have at least certain legal rights, likely including right-to-life," says Johnston. This would enable a fetus on the edge of viability to make claims on the mother, and lead either to a shortening of the window in which abortion is legal—or a practice of denying abortion altogether. Instead, Johnston predicts, doctors might offer to transfer the fetus to an artificial womb for external gestation as a new standard of care.
But the legal conundrum does not stop there. The viability threshold is an estimate decided by medical professionals based on the clinical evidence and the technology available. It is anything but static. In the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided, for example, a fetus was considered legally viable starting at 28 weeks. Now, with improved technology and medical management, "the hard limit today is probably 20 or 21 weeks," says Matthew Kemp, associate professor at the University of Western Australia and one of the Australian-Japanese artificial womb project's senior researchers.
The changing threshold can result in situations where lots of people invested in the decision disagree. "Those can be hard decisions, but they are case-by-case decisions that families make or parents make with the key providers to determine when to proceed and when to let the infant die. Usually, it's a shared decision where the parents have the final say," says Johnston. But this isn't always the case.
On May 9th 2016, a boy named Alfie Evans was born in Liverpool, UK. Suffering seizures a few months after his birth, Alfie was diagnosed with an unknown neurodegenerative disorder and soon went into a semi-vegetative state, which lasted for more than a year. Alfie's medical team decided to withdraw his ventilation support, suggesting further treatment was unlawful and inhumane, but his parents wanted permission to fly him to a hospital in Rome and attempt to prolong his life there. In the end, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that doctors could stop providing life support for Alfie, saying that the child required "peace, quiet and privacy." What happened to little Alfie raised huge publicity in the UK and pointedly highlighted the dilemma of whether parents or doctors should have the final say in the fate of a terminally-ill child in life-support treatment.
"In a few years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue."
Alfie was born and, thus had legal rights, yet legal and ethical mayhem arose out of his case. When it comes to gestatelings, the scenarios will be even more complicated, says Romanis. "I think there's a really big question about who has parental rights and who doesn't," she says. "The assisted reproductive technology (ART) law in the U.K. hasn't been updated since 2008....It certainly needs an update when you think about all the things we have done since [then]."
This June, for instance, scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina published research showing that they could take a small sample of tissue from a rabbit's uterus and create a bioengineered uterus, which then supported both fertilization and normal pregnancy like a natural uterus does.
"In [a number of] years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue," says Dr. Anthony Atala, the Institute's director and a pioneer in regenerative medicine. These bioengineered uteri will eventually be covered by insurance, Atala expects. But when it comes to artificial wombs that externally gestate premature infants, will all mothers have equal access?
Medical reports have already shown racial and ethnic disparities in infertility treatments and access to assisted reproductive technologies. Costs on average total $12,400 per cycle of treatment and may require several cycles to achieve a live birth. "There's no indication that artificial wombs would be treated any differently. That's what we see with almost every expensive new medical technology," says Johnston. In a much more dystopian future, there is even a possibility that inequity in healthcare might create disturbing chasms in how women of various class levels bear children. Romanis asks us to picture the following scenario:
We live in a world where artificial wombs have become mainstream. Most women choose to end their pregnancies early and transfer their gestatelings to the care of machines. After a while, insurers deem full-term pregnancy and childbirth a risky non-necessity, and are lobbying to stop covering them altogether. Wealthy white women continue opting out of their third trimesters (at a high cost), since natural pregnancy has become a substandard route for poorer women. Those women are strongly judged for any behaviors that could risk their fetus's health, in contrast with the machine's controlled environment. "Why are you having a coffee during your pregnancy?" critics might ask. "Why are you having a glass of red wine? If you can't be perfect, why don't you have it the artificial way?"
Problem is, even if they want to, they won't be able to afford it.
In a more sanguine version, however, the artificial wombs are only used in cases of prematurity as a life-saving medical intervention rather than as a lifestyle accommodation. The 15 million babies who are born prematurely each year and may face serious respiratory, cardiovascular, visual and hearing problems, as well as learning disabilities, instead continue their normal development in artificial wombs. After lots of deliberation, insurers agree to bear the cost of external wombs because they are cheaper than a lifetime of medical care for a disabled or diseased person. This enables racial and ethnic minority women, who make up the majority of women giving premature birth, to access the technology.
Even extremely premature babies, those babies (far) below the threshold of 28 weeks of gestation, half of which die, could now discover this thing called life. In this scenario, as the Australian researcher Kemp says, we are simply giving a good shot at healthy, long-term survival to those who were unfortunate enough to start too soon.
A skin patch to treat peanut allergies teaches the body to tolerate the nuts
Ever since he was a baby, Sharon Wong’s son Brandon suffered from rashes, prolonged respiratory issues and vomiting. In 2006, as a young child, he was diagnosed with a severe peanut allergy.
"My son had a history of reacting to traces of peanuts in the air or in food,” says Wong, a food allergy advocate who runs a blog focusing on nut free recipes, cooking techniques and food allergy awareness. “Any participation in school activities, social events, or travel with his peanut allergy required a lot of preparation.”
Peanut allergies affect around a million children in the U.S. Most never outgrow the condition. The problem occurs when the immune system mistakenly views the proteins in peanuts as a threat and releases chemicals to counteract it. This can lead to digestive problems, hives and shortness of breath. For some, like Wong’s son, even exposure to trace amounts of peanuts could be life threatening. They go into anaphylactic shock and need to take a shot of adrenaline as soon as possible.
Typically, people with peanut allergies try to completely avoid them and carry an adrenaline autoinjector like an EpiPen in case of emergencies. This constant vigilance is very stressful, particularly for parents with young children.
“The search for a peanut allergy ‘cure’ has been a vigorous one,” says Claudia Gray, a pediatrician and allergist at Vincent Pallotti Hospital in Cape Town, South Africa. The closest thing to a solution so far, she says, is the process of desensitization, which exposes the patient to gradually increasing doses of peanut allergen to build up a tolerance. The most common type of desensitization is oral immunotherapy, where patients ingest small quantities of peanut powder. It has been effective but there is a risk of anaphylaxis since it involves swallowing the allergen.
"By the end of the trial, my son tolerated approximately 1.5 peanuts," Sharon Wong says.
DBV Technologies, a company based in Montrouge, France has created a skin patch to address this problem. The Viaskin Patch contains a much lower amount of peanut allergen than oral immunotherapy and delivers it through the skin to slowly increase tolerance. This decreases the risk of anaphylaxis.
Wong heard about the peanut patch and wanted her son to take part in an early phase 2 trial for 4-to-11-year-olds.
“We felt that participating in DBV’s peanut patch trial would give him the best chance at desensitization or at least increase his tolerance from a speck of peanut to a peanut,” Wong says. “The daily routine was quite simple, remove the old patch and then apply a new one. By the end of the trial, he tolerated approximately 1.5 peanuts.”
How it works
For DBV Technologies, it all began when pediatric gastroenterologist Pierre-Henri Benhamou teamed up with fellow professor of gastroenterology Christopher Dupont and his brother, engineer Bertrand Dupont. Together they created a more effective skin patch to detect when babies have allergies to cow's milk. Then they realized that the patch could actually be used to treat allergies by promoting tolerance. They decided to focus on peanut allergies first as the more dangerous.
The Viaskin patch utilizes the fact that the skin can promote tolerance to external stimuli. The skin is the body’s first defense. Controlling the extent of the immune response is crucial for the skin. So it has defense mechanisms against external stimuli and can promote tolerance.
The patch consists of an adhesive foam ring with a plastic film on top. A small amount of peanut protein is placed in the center. The adhesive ring is attached to the back of the patient's body. The peanut protein sits above the skin but does not directly touch it. As the patient sweats, water droplets on the inside of the film dissolve the peanut protein, which is then absorbed into the skin.
The peanut protein is then captured by skin cells called Langerhans cells. They play an important role in getting the immune system to tolerate certain external stimuli. Langerhans cells take the peanut protein to lymph nodes which activate T regulatory cells. T regulatory cells suppress the allergic response.
A different patch is applied to the skin every day to increase tolerance. It’s both easy to use and convenient.
“The DBV approach uses much smaller amounts than oral immunotherapy and works through the skin significantly reducing the risk of allergic reactions,” says Edwin H. Kim, the division chief of Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at the University of North Carolina, U.S., and one of the principal investigators of Viaskin’s clinical trials. “By not going through the mouth, the patch also avoids the taste and texture issues. Finally, the ability to apply a patch and immediately go about your day may be very attractive to very busy patients and families.”
Brandon Wong displaying origami figures he folded at an Origami Convention in 2022
Results from DBV's phase 3 trial in children ages 1 to 3 show its potential. For a positive result, patients who could not tolerate 10 milligrams or less of peanut protein had to be able to manage 300 mg or more after 12 months. Toddlers who could already tolerate more than 10 mg needed to be able to manage 1000 mg or more. In the end, 67 percent of subjects using the Viaskin patch met the target as compared to 33 percent of patients taking the placebo dose.
“The Viaskin peanut patch has been studied in several clinical trials to date with promising results,” says Suzanne M. Barshow, assistant professor of medicine in allergy and asthma research at Stanford University School of Medicine in the U.S. “The data shows that it is safe and well-tolerated. Compared to oral immunotherapy, treatment with the patch results in fewer side effects but appears to be less effective in achieving desensitization.”
The primary reason the patch is less potent is that oral immunotherapy uses a larger amount of the allergen. Additionally, absorption of the peanut protein into the skin could be erratic.
Gray also highlights that there is some tradeoff between risk and efficacy.
“The peanut patch is an exciting advance but not as effective as the oral route,” Gray says. “For those patients who are very sensitive to orally ingested peanut in oral immunotherapy or have an aversion to oral peanut, it has a use. So, essentially, the form of immunotherapy will have to be tailored to each patient.” Having different forms such as the Viaskin patch which is applied to the skin or pills that patients can swallow or dissolve under the tongue is helpful.
The hope is that the patch’s efficacy will increase over time. The team is currently running a follow-up trial, where the same patients continue using the patch.
“It is a very important study to show whether the benefit achieved after 12 months on the patch stays stable or hopefully continues to grow with longer duration,” says Kim, who is an investigator in this follow-up trial.
"My son now attends university in Massachusetts, lives on-campus, and eats dorm food. He has so much more freedom," Wong says.
The team is further ahead in the phase 3 follow-up trial for 4-to-11-year-olds. The initial phase 3 trial was not as successful as the trial for kids between one and three. The patch enabled patients to tolerate more peanuts but there was not a significant enough difference compared to the placebo group to be definitive. The follow-up trial showed greater potency. It suggests that the longer patients are on the patch, the stronger its effects.
They’re also testing if making the patch bigger, changing the shape and extending the minimum time it’s worn can improve its benefits in a trial for a new group of 4-to-11 year-olds.
DBV Technologies is using the skin patch to treat cow’s milk allergies in children ages 1 to 17. They’re currently in phase 2 trials.
As for the peanut allergy trials in toddlers, the hope is to see more efficacy soon.
For Wong’s son who took part in the earlier phase 2 trial for 4-to-11-year-olds, the patch has transformed his life.
“My son continues to maintain his peanut tolerance and is not affected by peanut dust in the air or cross-contact,” Wong says. ”He attends university in Massachusetts, lives on-campus, and eats dorm food. He still carries an EpiPen but has so much more freedom than before his clinical trial. We will always be grateful.”
Scientists aim to preserve donkeys, one frozen embryo at a time
Every day for a week in 2022, Andres Gambini, a veterinarian and senior lecturer in animal science at the University of Queensland in Australia, walked into his lab—and headed straight to the video camera. Trained on an array of about 50 donkey embryos, all created by Gambini’s manual in vitro fertilization, or IVF, the camera kept an eye on their developmental progress. To eventually create a viable embryo that could be implanted into a female donkey, the embryos’ cells had to keep dividing, first in two, then in four and so on.
But the embryos weren’t cooperating. Some would start splitting up only to stop a day or two later, and others wouldn’t start at all. Every day he came in, Gambini saw fewer and fewer dividing embryos, so he was losing faith in the effort. “You see many failed attempts and get disappointed,” he says.
Gambini and his team, a group of Argentinian and Spanish researchers, were working to create these embryos because many donkey populations around the world are declining. It may sound counterintuitive that domesticated animals may need preservation, but out of 28 European donkey breeds, 20 are endangered and seven are in critical status. It is partly because of the inbreeding that happened over the course of many years and partly because in today’s Western world donkeys aren’t really used anymore.
“That's the reason why some breeds begin to disappear because humans were not really interested in having that specific breed anymore,” Gambini says. Nonetheless, in Africa, India and Latin America millions of rural families still rely on these hardy creatures for agriculture and transportation. And the only two wild donkey species—Equus africanus in Africa and Equus hemionus in Asia—are also dwindling, due to losing their habitats to human activities, diseases and slow reproduction rates. Gambini’s team wanted to create a way to preserve the animals for the future. “Donkeys are more endangered than people realize,” he says.
There’s much more to donkeys' trouble though. For the past 20 or so years, they have been facing a huge existential threat due to their hide gelatin, a compound derived from their skins by soaking and stewing. In Chinese traditional medicine, the compound, called ejiao, is believed to have a medicinal value, so it’s used in skin creams, added to food and taken in capsules. Centuries ago, ejiao was a very expensive luxury product available only for the emperor and his household. That changed in the 1990s when the Chinese economy boomed, and many people were suddenly able to afford it. “It went from a very elite product to a very popular product,” says Janneke Merkx, a campaign manager at The Donkey Sanctuary, a United Kingdom-based nonprofit organization that keeps tabs on the animals’ welfare worldwide. “It is a status symbol for gift giving.”
Having evolved in the harsh and arid mountainous terrains where food and water were scarce, donkeys are extremely adaptable and hardy. But the Donkey Sanctuary documented cases in which an entire village had their animals disappear overnight, finding them killed and skinned outside their settlement.
The Chinese donkey population was quickly decimated. Unlike many other farm animals, donkeys are finicky breeders. When stressed and unhappy, they don’t procreate, so growing them in large industrial settings isn’t possible. “Donkeys are notoriously slow breeders and really very difficult to farm,” says Merkx. “They are not the same as other livestock like sheep and pigs and cattle.” Within years the, the donkey numbers in China dropped precipitously. “China used to have the largest donkey population in the world in the 1990s. They had 11 million donkeys, and it's now down to less than 3 million, and they just can't keep up with the demand.”
To keep the ejiao conveyor going, some producers turned to the illegal wildlife trade. Poachers began to steal and slaughter donkeys from rural villages in Africa. The Donkey Sanctuary documented cases in which an entire village had their animals disappear overnight, finding them killed and skinned outside their settlement. Exactly how many creatures were lost to the skin trade to-date isn’t possible to calculate, says Faith Burden, the Donkey Sanctuary’s director of equine operations. Traditionally a poor people’s beast of burden, donkey counts are hard to keep track of. “When an animal doesn't produce meat, milk or eggs or whatever edible product, they're often less likely to be acknowledged in a government population census,” Burden says. “So reliable statistics are hard to come by.” The nonprofit estimates that about 4.8 million are slaughtered annually.
During their six to seven thousand years of domestication, donkeys rarely got the full appreciation for their services. They are often compared to horses, which doesn’t do them justice. They’re entirely different animals, Burden says. Built for speed, horses respond to predators and other dangers by running as fast as they can. Donkeys, which originate from the rocky, mountainous regions of Africa where running is dangerous, react to threats by freezing and assessing the situation for the best response. “Those so-called stubborn donkeys that won’t move as you want, they are actually thinking ‘what’s the best approach,’” Burden says. They may even choose to fight the predators rather than flee, she adds. “In some parts of the world, people use them as guard animals against things like coyotes and wolves.”
Scientists believe that domestic donkeys take their origin from Equus africanus or African wild ass, originally roaming where Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea are today. Having evolved in the harsh and arid mountainous terrains where food and water were scarce, they are extremely adaptable and hardy. Research finds that they can go without water for 72 hours and then drink their fill without any negative consequences. Their big jaws let them chew tough desert shrubs, which horses can’t exist on. Their large ears help dissipate heat. Their little upright hooves are a perfect fit for the uneven rocky or other dangerous grounds. Accustomed to the mountain desert climate with hot days and cold nights, they don’t mind temperature flux.
“The donkey is the most supremely adapted animal to deal with hostile conditions,” Burden says. “They can survive on much lower nutritional quality food than a cow, sheep or horse. That’s why communities living in some of the most inhospitable places will often have donkeys with them.” And that’s why losing a donkey to an illegal skin trade can devastate a family in places like Eritrea. Suddenly everything from water to firewood to produce must be carried by family members—and often women.
Workers unloading donkeys at the Shinyanga slaughterhouse in Tanzania. Fearing a future in which donkeys go extinct, scientists have found ways to cryopreserve a donkey embryo in liquid nitrogen.
One can imagine a time when worldwide donkey populations may dwindle to the point that they would need to be restored. That includes their genetic variability too. That’s where the frozen embryos may come in handy. We may be able to use them to increase the genetic variability of donkeys, which will be especially important if they get closer to extinction, Gambini says. His team had already created frozen embryos for horses and zebras, an idea similar to a seed bank. “We call this concept the Frozen Zoo.”
Creating donkey embryos proved much harder than those of zebras and horses. To improve chances of fertilization, Gambini used the intracytoplasmic sperm injection or ICSI, in which he employed a tiny needle called a micropipette to inject a donkey sperm into an egg. That was a step above the traditional IVF method, in which the egg and a sperm are left floating in a test tube together. The injection took, but during the incubating week, one after the other, the embryos stopped dividing. Finally, on day seven, Gambini finally spotted the exact sight he was hoping to see. One of the embryos developed into a burgeoning ball of cells.
“That stage is called a blastocyst,” Gambini says. The clump of cells had a lot of fluids mixed within them, which indicated that they were finally developing into a viable embryo. “When we see a blastocyst, we know we can transfer that into a female.” He was so excited he immediately called all his collaborators to tell them the good news, which they later published in the journal of Theriogenology.
The one and only embryo to reach that stage, the blastocyst was cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen. The team is waiting for the next breeding season to see if a female donkey may carry it to term and give birth to a healthy foal. Gambini’s team is hoping to polish the process and create more embryos. “It’s our weapon in the conservation ass-enal,” he says.