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.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5 percent of patients die from the attack, and 20 percent within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1 percent of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20 percent of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
This article was originally published by Leaps.org on July 28, 2021.