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The Science Behind Bioengineered Uteri

December 2, 2020

Science is always coming up with new ways to surprise us. It seems as if every time we turn around, there is a new futuristic scientific development that is both cool and confusing at the same time. On the table for today’s awesome science fact is bioengineered uteri! In simpler terms, scientists and researchers have been working on a way to incubate a fetus without a woman’s natural uterus, instead focusing on bioengineered regenerative tissue to recreate the womb. They began this study on laboratory bunny rabbits but hope to one day use the same technology to hold a human baby. We understand, naturally, that that all sounds a bit confusing to anyone without an introductory science background. But fear not! We’ll break it down for you below, and hopefully make it a bit easier to understand!

Key Takeaways:

·      Scientists have been working on a way to generate functional, inorganic tissue that can incubate a live and healthy fetus just as a woman’s body would.

·      The preliminary studies were conducted on rabbits and their reproductive systems.

·      This technology is still in its infancy and not available for use by the general populace, although it could be one day.

·      Bioengineered uteri have the chance to be more successful than traditional uterine transplants that have a low success rate when it comes to live births, as only ten babies have been born from this type of procedure in the United States.

How did they engineer a uterus?

Scientists and researchers worked diligently to generate inorganic tissues that could mimic the properties of the natural uterine tissue. In order to reach this goal, scientists took cells from their patient and inserted them into a series of biodegradable scaffolding. Their doing so allows for the engineered tissue to function in the same way and allow a fetus to develop as it normally would.

This strategy has already been clinically tested in humans who have sustained injury to tubular and non-tubular hollow organs. This technology was developed as a response to a decrease in organ donor rates and is viewed as a positive possibility for women who suffer from uterine-based infertility. These new developments negate the need for organ transplant, a historically unsuccessful form of infertility treatment. In order to accurately test this scientific strategy on reproductive organs, scientists gathered female laboratory rabbits and separated them into four groups—one of which contained the bioengineered scaffolds that held their reproductive genes. Six months after the initial phases and implantations of the study, the female rabbits were then successfully mated with fertile male rabbits.

A bunny rabbit hooked up to an oxygen machine.
Scientists used rabbits (due to their large uteruses) in order to test their working theories on bioengineered uterine tissue and its ability to support a fetus. Image courtesy of medirabbit.com.

What does this mean for the future of reproductive science?

It will likely be many years before this technology is developed and advanced enough to work successfully on humans. However, the future is hopeful. As stated, there is already a precedent for this type of biotechnology that has worked successfully in human beings. Scientists and researchers alike hope to capitalize further on the existing technology in order to allow a bioengineered uterus to successfully hold a human embryo. If this technology is as efficient as they desire it to be, it would be a huge development in infertility treatments. As the inorganic uterus is structured around the patient’s own cells, there would no longer be a need for any type of transplanted uterus and avoids the low success rate of transplant births and any health issues that could stem from transplant rejection. At the moment, however, this neat study still remains in the preclinical phase, with more research being ordered before clinical trials could begin. But one researcher on the team, Koudy Williams DVM, is optimistic, stating: "Our results indicate that the tissue-engineered uteri responded to the expansion and mechanical strains that occur during pregnancy. Further preclinical studies are being planned before clinical trials are contemplated."

A few young women are working in a sciencelab.
Should this trial be successful, the future of infertility treatment could forever be changed for the better. Image courtesy of glassdoor.com.

Although the research is still in its introductory stages, there is much to be optimistic about. Perfecting this type of biomedical science can allow doctors to prescribe safer, quicker infertility treatment without the hassles and downsides of more traditional routes such as in-vitro fertilization and intrauterine insemination. While the final “product,” per se, is still a long way off, the mere fact that scientists have been able to make such large strides with reproductive treatment is incredible. Hopefully one day in the near future, couples suffering from infertility will be able to utilize this technology to start their own families!


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