Gifting the Vessel

Womb transplants begin in UK after Sweden success


The gift of life is arguably the most precious thing anyone can give or receive. Now, some women in the UK are receiving the ability to give life.

According to a recent press release issued by United Press International (UPI), 10 women in the UK will soon be receiving womb transplants as part of a clinical trial approved by the Health Research Authority. The transplants will begin next spring and, if successful, the first baby from a womb transplant in the UK will be born in 2018.

The trial approval came after Swedish researchers had success with womb transplants last year, in which 9 Swedish women were given reproductive organs from living family members. Last October, one of those women gave birth to the first baby born from a live-donor transplanted womb.

The UK participants won't be receiving their new wombs from living family members, however — but instead from "brain-dead" donors with healthy bodies. If the transplants are successful, these women will then be impregnated via in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

"Over the years I have quite a lot of crisis with this project," said transplant team leader Richard Smith, MD, of Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital in London, in an interview with BBC Radio 4. "But when you meet the women who have been born without a uterus, or who have had their uterus removed for one reason or another, this is really heart-rending stuff and that is what has kept us going."

According to Dr. Smith, the transplant will take about six hours and the womb will be monitored for one year before the patient is approved for IVF. Eight months after fertilization, the baby will be delivered via C-section.

Transplanted wombs can undergo two pregnancies before they must be removed. This allows the patient to stop taking immunosuppressant drugs, which keep the body from rejecting the transplant.

In a press release from the Boston Globe, Antonio Gargiulo, MD, a specialist in infertility and reproductive surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said that this procedure may be complicated in a number of ways.

According to Dr. Gargiulo, one of the reasons this procedure may appeal to some women in the UK is that paid surrogacy is illegal in many parts of Europe, including Sweden.

Dr. Gargiulo emphasizes that womb transplants are major abdominal surgeries, and that the safety of both the donor and recipient must be carefully considered.

Adam Balen, MD, DSc, a reproductive expert at the British Fertility Society disagrees.

"The UK team have been working on this for many years and so it is very exciting that they have been given the go ahead to move into clinical practice," Dr. Balen said, in the UPI press release. "This opens up the possibility to carry their own pregnancy rather than rely upon IVF with their eggs and surrogacy."