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 scientistsrepeated 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 single shot — a gene therapy injected into the brain — dramatically reduced alcohol consumption in monkeys that previously drank heavily. If the therapy is safe and effective in people, it might one day be a permanent treatment for alcoholism for people with no other options.
The challenge: Alcohol use disorder (AUD) means a person has trouble controlling their alcohol consumption, even when it is negatively affecting their life, job, or health.
In the U.S., more than 10 percent of people over the age of 12 are estimated to have AUD, and while medications, counseling, or sheer willpower can help some stop drinking, staying sober can be a huge struggle — an estimated 40-60 percent of people relapse at least once.
A team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
The idea: For occasional drinkers, alcohol causes the brain to release more dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. Chronic alcohol use, however, causes the brain to produce, and process, less dopamine, and this persistent dopamine deficit has been linked to alcohol relapse.
There is currently no way to reverse the changes in the brain brought about by AUD, but a team of U.S. researchers suspected that an in-development gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease might work as a dopamine-replenishing treatment for alcoholism, too.
To find out, they tested it in heavy-drinking monkeys — and the animals’ alcohol consumption dropped by 90% over the course of a year.
How it works: The treatment centers on the protein GDNF (“glial cell line-derived neurotrophic factor”), which supports the survival of certain neurons, including ones linked to dopamine.
For the new study, a harmless virus was used to deliver the gene that codes for GDNF into the brains of four monkeys that, when they had the option, drank heavily — the amount of ethanol-infused water they consumed would be equivalent to a person having nine drinks per day.
“We targeted the cell bodies that produce dopamine with this gene to increase dopamine synthesis, thereby replenishing or restoring what chronic drinking has taken away,” said co-lead researcher Kathleen Grant.
To serve as controls, another four heavy-drinking monkeys underwent the same procedure, but with a saline solution delivered instead of the gene therapy.
The results: All of the monkeys had their access to alcohol removed for two months following the surgery. When it was then reintroduced for four weeks, the heavy drinkers consumed 50 percent less compared to the control group.
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
The researchers then took the alcohol away for another four weeks, before giving it back for four. They repeated this cycle for a year, and by the end of it, the treated monkeys’ consumption had fallen by more than 90 percent compared to the controls.
“Drinking went down to almost zero,” said Grant. “For months on end, these animals would choose to drink water and just avoid drinking alcohol altogether. They decreased their drinking to the point that it was so low we didn’t record a blood-alcohol level.”
When the researchers examined the monkeys’ brains at the end of the study, they were able to confirm that dopamine levels had been replenished in the treated animals, but remained low in the controls.
Looking ahead: Dopamine is involved in a lot more than addiction, so more research is needed to not only see if the results translate to people but whether the gene therapy leads to any unwanted changes to mood or behavior.
Because the therapy requires invasive brain surgery and is likely irreversible, it’s unlikely to ever become a common treatment for alcoholism — but it could one day be the only thing standing between people with severe AUD and death.
“[The treatment] would be most appropriate for people who have already shown that all our normal therapeutic approaches do not work for them,” said Grant. “They are likely to create severe harm or kill themselves or others due to their drinking.”
On the savannah near the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, elephants grazed contentedly. Nearby, postdoctoral researcher Alida de Flamingh watched and waited. As the herd moved away, she went into action, collecting samples of elephant dung that she and other wildlife conservationists would study in the months to come. She pulled on gloves, took a swab, and ran it all over the still-warm, round blob of elephant poop.
Sequencing DNA from fecal matter is a safe, non-invasive way to track and ultimately help protect over 42,000 species currently threatened by extinction. Scientists are using this DNA to gain insights into wildlife health, genetic diversity and even the broader environment. Applied to elephants, chimpanzees, toucans and other species, it helps scientists determine the genetic diversity of groups and linkages with other groups. Such analysis can show changes in rates of inbreeding. Populations with greater genetic diversity adapt better to changes and environmental stressors than those with less diversity, thus reducing their risks of extinction, explains de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Analyzing fecal DNA also reveals information about an animal’s diet and health, and even nearby flora that is eaten. That information gives scientists broader insights into the ecosystem, and the findings are informing conservation initiatives. Examples include restoring or maintaining genetic connections among groups, ensuring access to certain foraging areas or increasing diversity in captive breeding programs.
Approximately 27 percent of mammals and 28 percent of all assessed species are close to dying out. The IUCN Red List of threatened species, simply called the Red List, is the world’s most comprehensive record of animals’ risk of extinction status. The more information scientists gather, the better their chances of reducing those risks. In Africa, populations of vertebrates declined 69 percent between 1970 and 2022, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).
“We put on sterile gloves and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says Alida de Flamingh, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
“When people talk about species, they often talk about ecosystems, but they often overlook genetic diversity,” says Christina Hvilsom, senior geneticist at the Copenhagen Zoo. “It’s easy to count (individuals) to assess whether the population size is increasing or decreasing, but diversity isn’t something we can see with our bare eyes. Yet, it’s actually the foundation for the species and populations.” DNA analysis can provide this critical information.
Assessing elephants’ health
“Africa’s elephant populations are facing unprecedented threats,” says de Flamingh, the postdoc, who has studied them since 2009. Challenges include ivory poaching, habitat destruction and smaller, more fragmented habitats that result in smaller mating pools with less genetic diversity. Additionally, de Flamingh studies the microbial communities living on and in elephants – their microbiomes – looking for parasites or dangerous microbes.
Approximately 415,000 elephants inhabit Africa today, but de Flamingh says the number would be four times higher without these challenges. The IUCN Red List reports African savannah elephants are endangered and African forest elephants are critically endangered. Elephants support ecosystem biodiversity by clearing paths that help other species travel. Their very footprints create small puddles that can host smaller organisms such as tadpoles. Elephants are often described as ecosystems’ engineers, so if they disappear, the rest of the ecosystem will suffer too.
There’s a process to collecting elephant feces. “We put on sterile gloves (which we change for each sample) and use a sterile swab to collect wet mucus and materials from the outside of the dung ball,” says de Flamingh. They rub a sample about the size of a U.S. quarter onto a paper card embedded with DNA preservation technology. Each card is air dried and stored in a packet of desiccant to prevent mold growth. This way, samples can be stored at room temperature indefinitely without the DNA degrading.
Earlier methods required collecting dung in bags, which needed either refrigeration or the addition of preservatives, or the riskier alternative of tranquilizing the animals before approaching them to draw blood samples. The ability to collect and sequence the DNA made things much easier and safer.
“Our research provides a way to assess elephant health without having to physically interact with elephants,” de Flamingh emphasizes. “We also keep track of the GPS coordinates of each sample so that we can create a map of the sampling locations,” she adds. That helps researchers correlate elephants’ health with geographic areas and their conditions.
Although de Flamingh works with elephants in the wild, the contributions of zoos in the United States and collaborations in South Africa (notably the late Professor Rudi van Aarde and the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria) were key in studying this method to ensure it worked, she points out.
Genetic work with chimpanzees began about a decade ago. Hvilsom and her group at the Copenhagen Zoo analyzed DNA from nearly 1,000 fecal samples collected between 2003 and 2018 by a team of international researchers. The goal was to assess the status of the West African subspecies, which is critically endangered after rapid population declines. Of the four subspecies of chimpanzees, the West African subspecies is considered the most at-risk.
In total, the WWF estimates the numbers of chimpanzees inhabiting Africa’s forests and savannah woodlands at between 173,000 and 300,000. Poaching, disease and human-caused changes to their lands are their major risks.
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes.
“One of the threats is mining near the Nimba Mountains in Guinea,” a stronghold for the West African subspecies, Hvilsom says. The Nimba Mountains are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but they are rich in iron ore, which is used to make the steel that is vital to the Asian construction boom. As she and colleagues wrote in a recent paper, “Many extractive industries are currently developing projects in chimpanzee habitat.”
Analyzing DNA allows researchers to identify individual chimpanzees more accurately than simply observing them, she says. Normally, field researchers would install cameras and manually inspect each picture to determine how many chimpanzees were in an area. But, Hvilsom says, “That’s very tricky. Chimpanzees move a lot and are fast, so it’s difficult to get clear pictures. Often, they find and destroy the cameras. Also, they live in large areas, so you need a lot of cameras.”
By analyzing genetics obtained from fecal samples, Hvilsom estimated the chimpanzees’ population, ascertained their family relationships and mapped their migration routes based upon DNA comparisons with other chimpanzee groups. The mining companies and builders are using this information to locate future roads where they won’t disrupt migration – a more effective solution than trying to build artificial corridors for wildlife.
“The current route cuts off communities of chimpanzees,” Hvilsom elaborates. That effectively prevents young adult chimps from joining other groups when the time comes, eventually reducing the currently-high levels of genetic diversity.
“The mining company helped pay for the genetics work,” Hvilsom says, “as part of its obligation to assess and monitor biodiversity and the effect of the mining in the area.”
Of 50 toucan subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching.
Identifying toucan families
Feces aren't the only substance researchers draw DNA samples from. Jeffrey Coleman, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at Austin relies on blood tests for studying the genetic diversity of toucans---birds species native to Central America and nearby regions. They live in the jungles, where they hop among branches, snip fruit from trees, toss it in the air and catch it with their large beaks. “Toucans are beautiful, charismatic birds that are really important to the ecosystem,” says Coleman.
Of their 50 subspecies, 11 are threatened or near-threatened with extinction because of deforestation and poaching. “When people see these aesthetically pleasing birds, they’re motivated to care about conservation practices,” he points out.
Coleman works with the Dallas World Aquarium and its partner zoos to analyze DNA from blood draws, using it to identify which toucans are related and how closely. His goal is to use science to improve the genetic diversity among toucan offspring.
Specifically, he’s looking at sections of the genome of captive birds in which the nucleotides repeat multiple times, such as AGATAGATAGAT. Called microsatellites, these consecutively-repeating sections can be passed from parents to children, helping scientists identify parent-child and sibling-sibling relationships. “That allows you to make strategic decisions about how to pair (captive) individuals for mating...to avoid inbreeding,” Coleman says.
Jeffrey Coleman is studying the microsatellites inside the toucan genomes.
Courtesy Jeffrey Coleman
The alternative is to use a type of analysis that looks for a single DNA building block – a nucleotide – that differs in a given sequence. Called single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs, pronounced “snips”), they are very common and very accurate. Coleman says they are better than microsatellites for some uses. But scientists have already developed a large body of microsatellite data from multiple species, so microsatellites can shed more insights on relations.
Regardless of whether conservation programs use SNPs or microsatellites to guide captive breeding efforts, the goal is to help them build genetically diverse populations that eventually may supplement endangered populations in the wild. “The hope is that the ecosystem will be stable enough and that the populations (once reintroduced into the wild) will be able to survive and thrive,” says Coleman. History knows some good examples of captive breeding success.
The California condor, which had a total population of 27 in 1987, when the last wild birds were captured, is one of them. A captive breeding program boosted their numbers to 561 by the end of 2022. Of those, 347 of those are in the wild, according to the National Park Service.
Conservationists hope that their work on animals’ genetic diversity will help preserve and restore endangered species in captivity and the wild. DNA analysis is crucial to both types of efforts. The ability to apply genome sequencing to wildlife conservation brings a new level of accuracy that helps protect species and gives fresh insights that observation alone can’t provide.
“A lot of species are threatened,” Coleman says. “I hope this research will be a resource people can use to get more information on longer-term genealogies and different populations.”