From SciFi to SciFact – The Artificial Womb3 min read

Two movies that prominently feature artificial wombs are sci-fi thrillers “The Matrix” and “The Island.” While both movies feature the wombs in more sinister plots, there’s no denying that they are also shown as highly-advanced, futuristic forms of technology.

In “The Matrix,” most of humanity has been captured by a race of machines that live off of the humans’ body heat and electrochemical energy and who imprison their minds within an artificial reality known as the Matrix. They “grow” the humans from embryos seemingly till death in these artificial wombs, keeping them in a suspended, plugged-in state for their entire lives. In what is perhaps the most memorable scene from the movie, the womb can be seen up-close when Neo is being unplugged, complete with the shiny, slippery placental fluid spilling out everywhere and dripping off of him as he is pulled out. In the rest of the film, you can often see the holes in the characters’ heads where they were directly plugged into the Matrix.

“The Island” shows the artificial womb in a different way. In this movie, the extremely wealthy pay for “clones” that act as health insurance policies. If the buyer needs a new kidney, heart, or even new skin, it is taken from the clone, who is then “decommissioned.” Differing from “The Matrix,” “The Island’s” clones are grown as fully-mature adults (or whatever the age of the buyer, though it appears most, if not all, are adults) based on a full biological scan of the buyer. While the buyers are told that the “agnates” remain in a vegetative state, the truth is that they walk and talk freely, are educated with knowledge and skills needed to perform various jobs for the company, and eventually start to develop memories and emotions despite not being “imprinted” with them.

Why is this so exciting?

Well, the artificial womb now exists.

Researchers in Tokyo have developed a technique called EUFI – extrauterine fetal incubation – by taking goat fetuses and threading catheters through the large vessels in the umbilical cord, which supplied the fetuses with oxygenated blood while suspending them in incubators that contain artificial amniotic fluid heated to body temperature.

Artificial Womb

After working on artificial placentas for a decade, Yoshinori Kuwabara, chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Juntendo University in Tokyo, and his associates have kept the goat fetuses in this environment for as long as three weeks. While they ran into problems with circulatory failure, along with many other technical difficulties, Kuwabara cautiously predicts that ”it should be possible to extend the length” and, ultimately, ”this can be applied to human beings.”

We are still a long way from creating a completely artificial gestation, we are also at a moment when the fetus, during its obligatory time in the womb, is no longer inaccessible, no longer locked away from necessary medical interventions. This is important because when children are born with malformations, damage is often done to the organ systems before birth; obstructive valves in the urinary system cause fluid to back up and destroy the kidneys, or an opening in the diaphragm allows loops of intestine to move up into the chest and crowd out the lungs.

N. Scott Adzick, surgeon in chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, trained with fetal surgery pioneer Michael Harrison. He describes newborn malformations as “like a lot of things in medicine; if you’d only gotten there earlier on, you could have prevented the damage.”

While there is still a long way to go until we achieve fully-functional artificial wombs, the future looks bright for this kind of technology.
Read more: NY Times

 

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