Ectogenesis, the development of a baby outside of the mother's body, is a concept that dates back to 1923. That year, British biochemist-geneticist J.B.S. Haldane gave a lecture to the "Heretics Society" of the University of Cambridge in which he predicted the invention of an artificial womb by 1960, leading to 70 percent of newborns being born that way by the 2070s. In reality, that's about when an artificial womb could be clinically operational, but trends in science and medicine suggest that such technology would come in increments, each fraught with ethical and social challenges.
An extra-uterine support device could be ready for clinical trials in humans in the next two to four years, with hopes that it could improve survival of very premature infants.
Currently, one major step is in the works, a system called an extra-uterine support device (EUSD) –or sometimes Ex-Vivo uterine Environment (EVE)– which researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have been using to support fetal lambs outside the mother. It also has been called an artificial placenta, because it supplies nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood to the developing lambs via the umbilical vein and receives blood full of waste products through the umbilical arteries. It does not do everything that a natural placenta does, yet it does do some things that a placenta doesn't do. It breathes for the fetus like the mother's lungs, and encloses the fetus in sterile fluid, just like the amniotic sac. It represents a solution to one set of technical challenges in the path to an artificial womb, namely how to keep oxygen flowing into a fetus and carbon dioxide flowing out when the fetal lungs are not ready to function.
Capable of supporting fetal lambs physiologically equivalent to a human fetus at 23 weeks' gestation or earlier, the EUSD could be ready for clinical trials in humans in the next two to four years, with hopes that it could improve survival of very premature infants. Existing medical technology can keep human infants alive when born in this 23-week range, or even slightly less —the record is just below 22 weeks. But survival is low, because most of the treatment is directed at the lungs, the last major body system to mature to a functional status. This leads to complications not only in babies born before 24 weeks' gestation, but also in a fairly large number of births up to 28 weeks' gestation.
So, the EUSD is basically an advanced neonatal life support machine that beckons to square off the survival curve for infants born up to the 28th week. That is no doubt a good thing, but given the political prominence of reproductive issues, might any societal obstacles be looming?
"While some may argue that the EUSD system will shift the definition of viability to a point prior to the maturation of the fetus' lungs, ethical and legal frameworks must still recognize the mother's privacy rights as paramount."
Health care attorney and clinical ethicist David N. Hoffman points out that even though the EUSD may shift the concept of fetal viability away from the maturity of developing lungs, it would not change the current relationship of the fetus to the mother during pregnancy.
"Our social and legal frameworks, including Roe v. Wade, invite the view of the embryo-fetus as resembling a parasite. Not in a negative sense, but functionally, since it obtains its life support from the mother, while she does not need the fetus for her own physical health," notes Hoffman, who holds faculty appointments at Columbia University, and at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, of Yeshiva University. "In contrast, our ethical conception of the relationship is grounded in the nurturing responsibility of parenthood. We prioritize the welfare of both mother and fetus ethically, but we lean toward the side of the mother's legal rights, regarding her health throughout pregnancy, and her right to control her womb for most of pregnancy. While some may argue that the EUSD system will shift the definition of viability to a point prior to the maturation of the fetus' lungs, ethical and legal frameworks must still recognize the mother's privacy rights as paramount, on the basis of traditional notions of personhood and parenthood."
Outside of legal frameworks, religion, of course, is a major factor in how society reacts to new reproductive technologies, and an artificial womb would trigger a spectrum of responses.
"Significant numbers of conservative Christians may oppose an artificial womb in fear that it might harm the central role of marriage in Christianity."
Speaking from the perspective of Lutheran scholarship, Dr. Daniel Deen, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif., does not foresee any objections to the EUSD, either theologically, or generally from Lutherans (who tend to be conservative on reproductive issues), since the EUSD is basically an improvement on current management of prematurity. But things would change with the advent of a full-blown artificial womb.
"Significant numbers of conservative Christians may oppose an artificial womb in fear that it might harm the central role of marriage in Christianity," says Deen, who specializes in the philosophy of science. "They may see the artificial womb as a catalyst for strengthening the mechanistic view of reproduction that dominates the thinking of secular society, and of other religious groups, including more liberal Christians."
Judaism, however, appears to be more receptive, even during the research phases.
"Even if researchers strive for a next-generation EUSD aimed at supporting a fetus several weeks earlier than possible with the current system, it still keeps the fetus inside the mother well beyond the 40-day threshold, so there likely are no concerns in terms of Jewish law," says Kalman Laufer, a rabbinical student and executive director of the Medical Ethics Society at Yeshiva University. Referring to a concept from the Babylonian Talmud that an embryo is "like water" until 40 days into pregnancy, at which time it receives a kind of almost-human status warranting protection, Laufer cautions that he's speaking about artificial wombs developed for the sake of rescuing very premature infants. At the same time though, he expects that artificial womb research will eventually trigger a series of complex, legalistic opinions from Jewish scholars, as biotechnology moves further toward supporting fetal growth entirely outside a woman's body.
"Since [the EUSD] gives some justification to end abortion, by transferring fetuses from mother to machine, conservatives will probably rally around it."
While the technology treads into uncomfortable territory for social conservatives at first glance, it's possible that the prospect of taking the abortion debate in a whole new direction could engender support for the artificial womb. "Since [the EUSD] gives some justification to end abortion, by transferring fetuses from mother to machine, conservatives will probably rally around it," says Zoltan Istvan, a transhumanist politician and journalist who ran for U.S. president in 2016. To some extent, Deen agrees with Istvan, provided we get to a point when the artificial womb is already a reality.
"The world has a way of moving forward despite the fear of its inhabitants," Deen notes. "If the technology gets developed, I could not see any Christians, liberal or conservative, arguing that people seeking abortion ought not opt for a 'transfer' versus an abortive procedure."
So then how realistic is a full-blown artificial womb? The researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia have noted various technical difficulties that would come up in any attempt to connect a very young fetus to the EUSD and maintain life. One issue is the small umbilical cord blood vessels that must be connected to the EUSD as fetuses of decreasing gestational age are moved outside the mother. Current procedures might be barely adequate for integrating a human fetus into the device in the 18 -21 week range, but going to lower gestational ages would require new technology and different strategies. It also would require numerous other factors to cover for fetal body systems that mature ahead of the lungs and that the current EUSD system is not designed to replace. However, biotechnology and tissue engineering strategies on the horizon could be added to later EUSDs. To address the blood vessel size issue, artificial womb research could benefit by drawing on experts in microfluidics, the field concerned with manipulation of tiny amounts of fluid through very small spaces, and which is ushering in biotech innovations like the "lab on a chip".
"The artificial womb might put fathers on equal footing with mothers, since any embryo could potentially achieve personhood without ever seeing the inside of a woman's uterus."
If the technical challenges to an artificial womb are indeed overcome, reproductive policy debates could be turned on their side.
"Evolution of the EUSD into a full-blown artificial external uterus has ramifications for any reproductive rights issues where policy currently assumes that a mother is needed for a fertilized egg to become a person," says Hoffman, the ethicist and legal scholar. "If we consider debates over whether to keep cryopreserved human embryos in storage, destroy them, or utilize them for embryonic stem cell research or therapies, the artificial womb might put fathers on equal footing with mothers, since any embryo could potentially achieve personhood without ever seeing the inside of a woman's uterus."
Such a scenario, of course, depends on today's developments not being curtailed or sidetracked by societal objections before full-blown ectogenesis is feasible. But if this does ever become a reality, the history of other biotechnologies suggests that some segment of society will embrace the new innovation and never look back.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."