Friday, May 09, 2008

Artifical Womb vs. Human Uterus

Mr. Foster duly told them.

Told them of the growing embryo on its bed of peritoneum. Made them taste the rich blood surrogate on which it fed. Explained why it had to be stimulated with placentin and thyroxin. told them of the corpus luteum extract. Showed them the jets through which at every twelfth metre from zero to 2040 it was automatically injected. Spoke of those gradually increasing doses of pituitary administered during the final ninety-six metres of their course. Described the artificial maternal circulation installed in every bottle at Metre 112; showed them the reservoir of blood-surrogate, the centrifugal pump that kept the liquid moving over the placenta and drove it through the synthetic lung and waste product filter. Referred to the embryo's troublesome tendency to anaemia, to the massive doses of hog's stomach extract and foetal foal's liver with which, in consequence, it had to be supplied. Showed them the simple mechanism by means of which, during the last two metres out of every eight, all the embryos were simultaneously shaken into familiarity with movement. Hinted at the gravity of the so-called "trauma of decanting" and enumerated the precautions taken to minimize, by a suitable training of the bottled embryo, that dangerous shock.
[. . . ]
Which brings us at last," continued Mr. Foster," out of the realm of mere slavish imitation of nature into the much more interesting world of human invention." He rubbed his hands. For of course, they didn't content themselves with merely hatching out embryos: any cow could do that.

~ Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
io9's resident Biogeek, Terry Johnson, looks at the human uterus and the possibility of artificial wombs in fact and fiction. His conclusion isn't too inspiring if you were hoping to have a bottle baby any time soon:
As surprising and weird as this all is, we're still many decades away from a safe, human uterine replicator that can bring an embryo from conception to zeroeth birthday party. Even once we've sorted out the technical aspects of the womb itself, we'll have to deal with what the rest of the mother's body contributes to development. Hormones have already been mentioned, but baby also borrows mommy's disease-fighting machinery. Our replicator will require nearly complete endocrine and immune systems, too.
The human uterus may not be perfect, but it works. Even if a safe artificial uterus is eventually developed, I'd expect it to be much more expensive than natural gestation, meaning that it would be an option limited to the wealthy and well-connected.

I don't think it's that far fetched to think that instead of artificial wombs, natural mammalian reproductive systems might be repurposed for carrying human embryos. There have been a number of cross-species surrogates that carried embryos from endangered species. Of course there are kinks to be worked out, since it doesn't always work, but at least the environment is basically friendly to embryonic growth. And why stop there?
It annoyed Io's best friend to give birth to a four-kilo cylinder of tightly wound, medium-grade, placental solvent filters.

For five long months Perseph had kept to a diet free of sugar, sniff or tobac – well, almost free. the final ten weeks she'd spend waddling around in the Bedouin drapery fashion decreed for pieceworkers this year. And all that for maybe two thousand dollars' worth of industrial sieves little better than a fabricow might produce.

~ "Piecework", David Brin
Already "pharming" techniques have been used to engineer goats that produce insulin or other drugs in their milk. The next step could be to use wombs for industrial fabrication of organic materials, not unlike the "fabricows" and poor women in David Brin's creepy short story "Piecework". Even in Brin's future world, the most delicate and important product - human babies - are still only human produced.

For more detailed background on research on artificial wombs, see this related 2005 article in Popular Science.

Image: "Suspended Fetus 3" by moyix on flickr
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1 comment:

arvind mishra said...

The Brave new World-Aldous Huxley
-the lines quoted as above reminds me
the great classic work read about two decades ago.Its true that replicating/simulating that kind of artificial uterus may take many more years from now but just see how it is described step by step by the visionary author.
Hats off to Huxley !