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British scientists move closer to womb transplant

22 October 2009
Appeared in BioNews 531

Doctors say the first successful womb transplant may be performed within two years. Research on rabbits has shown that it is possible to transplant a uterus and provide a reliable blood supply so that the organ lasts long enough to enable a pregnancy.

The research, led by Richard Smith, a consultant gynaecological surgeon at Hammersmith Hospital in London, UK, and involving teams in New York and Budapest, was presented this week at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) annual conference in Atlanta. Surgery performed on rabbits at the Royal Veterinary College in London led to five rabbits receiving a successful womb transplant which included connecting major blood vessels and the aorta but they did not achieve pregnancy naturally. Two of the rabbits lived to ten months and post-mortem examinations proved the transplants to be a success.

It is reported that around 15,000 women of childbearing age are without a womb in the UK. Some of whom are born without one or have been required to have it removed because of cancer. For these women the only option at present to have children is either through adoption or surrogacy. It is estimated that up to 200 women use surrogate mothers every year. If womb transplants can in the future be successfully applied to humans then this would provide women with a viable alternative.

A human womb transplant has already been performed in Saudi Arabia on a 26 year old woman in 2000 but failed after the organ, taken from a live donor, was rejected and needed to be removed after three months. Smith thinks that the organ was rejected because of difficulties in ensuring adequate blood supply which resulted in a clot developing. The difficulty is that the womb needs to be functioning in the woman for the duration of a pregnancy, during which the recipient would be required to take immuno-suppressant drugs to reduce the risk of rejection. The womb would then be removed.

'I think there are certain technical issues to be ironed out but I think the crux of how to carry out a successful graft that's properly vascularised - I think we have cracked that one,' Smith told the conference. The technology still needs to be translated into a safe and effective method to be used in humans, and the team are yet to attempt to create a successful pregnancy in rabbits through IVF.

Tony Rutherford, chairman of the British Fertility Society, commented, 'I think there is a big difference between demonstrating effectiveness in a rabbit and being able to do this in a larger animal or a human...'. There are also ethical issues which will need to be addressed. Clare Lewis-Jones, from Infertility Network UK, said 'a great deal of thought and discussion' was needed before the research was applied to humans.

The team plans to use the technique on larger animals but the project is running out of money after research grants were rejected. To continue the research, a charity called the Uterine Transplant UK will be set up to help obtain the necessary funding of £250,000. The Times newspaper reports that surgeons in New York have already been given the go ahead to perform a human trial after demonstrating a uterus can be preserved long enough for surgery to be carried out.

First womb transplant could take place in 2 years
The Times |  22 October 2009
Giving birth to womb transplants
BBC News Online |  22 October 2009
Womb transplants 'a step closer'
BBC News Online |  22 October 2009
Womb transplants available 'within 2 years'
The Daily Telegraph |  22 October 2009
Womb transplants 'on the way in two years'
The Daily Mail |  22 October 2009
15 April 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
One of the first women to receive a womb transplant is pregnant, the treating hospital has disclosed. A spokesperson said that early test results were 'consistent' with signs of pregnancy....
4 April 2011 - by Sarah Pritchard 
A New York fertility specialist has 'partially successfully' implanted a British woman's own ovarian tissue back into her body after treatment for breast cancer....
10 April 2007 - by Heidi Nicholl 
A Swedish team has successfully carried out womb transplants in sheep, leading to pregnancy. So far the researchers have worked on perfecting the technique of reconnecting the blood vessels and have removed and replaced the uterus in individual animals - known as autologous transplantation. The team removed and...
22 January 2007 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Doctors based at the New York Downtown Hospital, have been given the go-ahead to begin screening women to undergo the first womb transplant in the US. The procedure will involve the removal and transferral of a uterus from a dead donor to a female recipient. After waiting...
12 November 2006 - by Heidi Nicholl 
A surgeon in New York has been given the go-ahead to carry out a womb transplant. The procedure has been tried once before in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2000, but the organ had to be removed after 100 days when a blood clot formed in the...
11 September 2006 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Doctors at Hammersmith Hospital, London, aim to carry out the first successful womb transplant within two years, reported the Evening Standard. Doctors say that the womb would be taken from a dead donor and will only remain in the recipient for two or three years, or until...
26 June 2006 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
BioNews reporting from ESHRE conference, Prague (sponsored by Planer cryoTechnology). By Dr Jess Buxton: Swedish scientists have successfully transplanted uteruses in sheep, an achievement that paves the way for women who do not have a womb to bear their own children. The team, based at the Sahlgrenska Academy at Goteborg...
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