Following the successful arrival of the first baby born via womb transplant last year, the go-ahead has now been given for the first clinical trial of its kind in the UK
The 36-year-old mother from Sweden (whose identity has not been revealed) was born without a uterus, but gave birth to a healthy baby boy in October last year, after receiving a womb from a 61-year-old family friend.
Swedish doctors successfully transplanted the womb and implanted frozen embryos created by the woman and her husband through IVF treatment.
Doctors at Imperial College London now hope to do the same for 10 British women, after ethical approval has been granted for the use of donor wombs.
The women have been chosen from a group of 300 who initially approached the Womb Transplant UK team, and meet a specific set of criteria which includes having functioning ovaries despite no uterus, a long term partner, being a healthy weight and aged between 25 and 38.
They will undergo a six hour operation to receive the womb from a donor who is classed as braindead, but has been kept alive.
Project leader Dr Richard Smith, consultant gynaecologist at the Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospital, says the decision to use deceased donors reflects the complicated nature of the procedure.
Talking to thegurdian.com, he explains that donor retrieval is a bigger, more complex operation than the transplanting of the uterus. Though Swedish doctors did extract the womb from a live donor, Smith says he is reluctant to subject women to an operation of that magnitude.
Around one in 5,000 women in the UK are born without a womb, while others have sadly lost theirs to cancer. If successful, this procedure may then be rolled out offering around five women the opportunity for a transplant each year.
Sophie Lewis, 30, is one of the prospective candidates for the Imperial College London trial.
After her periods failed to start in her teens, she was diagnosed with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome at age 16, meaning that her womb had never developed.
Though Lewis and her partner of five years Tilden Lamb, 38, had previously agreed to explore surrogacy and adoption, she is now hopeful that she’ll be able to carry their child herself.
“When I was 16, I was told that I would never have children or that I would need to use a surrogate or look at adoption,” she says. “But then this whole other opportunity opened up to me.”
“It’s a huge operation, but it’s very exciting to be given this opportunity. To be able to carry my own child would be amazing. We are very much ‘what will be, will be’, but [we’re both] excited about the opportunity offered by a transplant.”
Before the trial begins, each couple will use IVF to create and freeze embryos using their own eggs and sperm.
The women will then undergo the six hour operation, and spend the following 12 months taking immunosuppressant drugs to stop their bodies from rejecting the womb.
If all is well, each woman will then be implanted with one of her embryos, hopefully resulting in a successful pregnancy. To minimise risks, the babies will be delivered by caesarean rather than full labour.
Six months after the birth each woman can try for another child if they wish, or the womb will be removed to avoid the risks of them taking immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of their lives.
“For many couples, childlessness is a disaster. Infertility is a difficult thing to treat for these women,” says Dr Richard Smith, who has been working towards this goal for 20 years.
“Surrogacy is an option but it does not answer the deep desire that women have to carry their own baby. For a woman to carry her own baby – that has to be a wonderful thing.”
The trial must raise £500,000 before any operations can take place, and despite having raised just £40,000 so far, Smith is optimistic.
“The project has run with no money from the start,” he says. “Somehow or other, somebody has always turned up and given us enough money to keep it going.”
Donations can be made at wombtransplantuk.org.