The creature, created by Frankenstein, grown in the harsh sterility of a lab rather than the traditional nurturing environment of the mother’s womb. Once upon a time this shocked people; nowadays IVF is everywhere. This next Frankenstein inspired post is all about growth outside the womb – ectogenesis!
Test tube baby
Even though the term ‘ectogenesis’ may conjure up images of science fiction along the lines of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or The Matrix, it’s not as scary as you may think. It’s just a scientific way of overcoming fertility problems.
The Kahun gynaecological papyrus | Wikicommons
History has had lots of interesting (albeit usually inaccurate and/or horrendously unfair) ideas about infertility and how it should be treated. Ancient Egyptian women were advised to smear their bellies with sweet beer and fruits, and laden themselves with onions in order to overcome their fertility issues, according to the Kahun gynaecological papyrus. In ancient China, infertile women were often forced to become concubines. And in Medieval times, texts like the Malleus Maleficarum documented that infertile women were witches (and we’ve all heard the stories about how ‘witches’ were treated!). Luckily, stigma like this doesn’t really exist to the same extent anymore. That’s not to say there’s no stigma, especially in developing countries. Infertility can be an immeasurable burden.
The most well-known fertility treatment is probably in vitro fertilisation, or IVF. In fact, this year actually marks the 50th anniversary of the first so called ‘test-tube baby’, Louise Brown, who was born July 25th, 1978. IVF as we know it now first appeared in the media in Crossroads, a popular soap of the time. In 1982, one of the plotlines involved a character undergoing IVF, to give birth to a baby. By coincidence, the actress playing this character went on to have IVF herself! Now IVF is commonplace, and has revolutionised the lives of people with fertility problems.
How does IVF work?
IVF (or in vitro fertilisation), is when egg and sperm are brought together in the lab. The developing embryo is then implanted back into the uterus after 2-5 days, and the pregnancy carried on as normal. If you want to find out more about how IVF works then check out the video below!
IVF | YouTube
Ectogenesis and ethics
Back when IVF was first announced, huge protest rallies were carried out by religious groups, who believed the scientists were ‘playing god’. With IVF, there is the risk that unwanted extra embyros are discarded, and it brings us to the ethical question of when life begins. This is a question which frequently pops up regarding fertility and reproduction. For example, in the UK it is legal to carry out an abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy – however, there have been cases of people giving birth to viable babies from week 21. And with advances in technology, life outside the womb may last even longer.
Researchers in the US have developed an artificial womb, a prototype which they one day hope to use to help premature human babies to survive. In the study, announced in April last year, they grew a lamb foetus for four weeks, without any signs of organ damage. The foetal lambs were extracted from pregnant sheep by caesarean deliveries at 17 weeks (the equivalent to around week 23 of human gestation), and placed in the BioBag, filled with synthetic amniotic-like fluids with a circulatory system to provide oxygen. The lambs appeared to grow normally, although obviously they develop differently to human foetuses, so more work is needed before human trials start. The researchers hope to be ready for these trials in a few years, so it may not be long until artificial human wombs become a reality.
Would you consider the termination of embryos as murder? | Wikicommons
With increasing IVF technological advances, and developments in artificial wombs, how long until babies can be brought from egg and sperm to full term without the need for a womb? Last year, researchers at Cambridge University announced they were able to grow a viable embryo in the lab for 13 days without any issues, and believed they could have kept it growing for longer if it weren’t for ethical rules. The 14-day law only allows human embyros to be kept for up to 14 days before they must be discarded, so full-term ectogenesis may be relying more on legal changes than new scientific breakthroughs.
Who even needs reproductive organs?
With all these developments, soon we may not even need reproductive organs to produce viable offspring. Back in 2016, researchers grew mice egg cells from stem cells, fertilized them via IVF and implanted the eggs back into female mice. They soon gave birth to healthy pups. Developments like this may allow the birth of children from same sex couples. Soon there might not be a need for traditional sex at all; we can just send off some stem cells and get some mail-order kids back from the Stork laboratory, just like in the stories. Scientific progress is paving the way for a new era in human reproduction, and soon, just like Mary Shelley’s creature, the next generation may be created in the labs too (although in a less horrific, more cool and socially-acceptable way).
Our next Frankenstein-inspired instalment will be all about resurrection and regeneration – stay tuned!
Missed out on the first Frankenstein instalment? Check out some of the super cool history and science of organ transplants here!
P.S. I know this post covers some quite a controversial ethical issues and I tried just to focus on the facts, but my editing friend said to put a little note on here to say we hope we don’t upset anyone with this topic! It’s just some really interesting science 🙂