Artificial Wombs - Something Revolutionary or Tech Bro Dream?
Hello 👋 and welcome to AthenaDAO’s Newsletter where we explore women’s health at the intersection of research, tech, and web3.
Hope everyone is having a great holiday and we wish you the best for 2023!
Lo-and-behold the Artificial Womb
When we were at the inception of AthenaDAO the original pitch deck had the artificial womb as a moonshot. In reality, is much closer to happening than we think. Right now, moonshots are getting women better healthcare. There is already the existence of synthetic mouse embryos, and with projects like the woolly mammoth revival, you could say that artificial wombs do actually exist already. Remember the premature lambs grown in an artificial uterus? A number of start-ups are working on it, including one from a popular self-described e-girl on Twitter (never mind that she is an MD and truly one of the best reads on the platform).
But far from emulating the placenta and umbilical cord, and other technical difficulties, this Atlantic article outlines clearly, the most difficult aspect to overcome will be the ethical divide.
2022 feels like the year the artificial womb took center stage when the tech class took to arguing about it on Twitter in early January. It started with Elon on underpopulation, continued with Sahil Lavingia on investing more in this technology, and finished with Vitalik Buterin. It all seemed at the intersection of tech/crypto bro dream.
I, for one, was impressed by the thinking on societal issues that Vitalik demonstrated in acknowledging something that is a reality for women - that our reproductive years play a role in inequality for us.
If you choose to play the career game, you lose the fertility years. If you choose to make use of your fertility you lose time in the career game. Women retire with less than men over their lifetime, even if they live longer. Those who choose to “have it all” leave their babies in the care of someone and that is an impossibility for most when daycare runs as much as a basic Ph.D. salary. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t.
“By freeing women from the necessity of pregnancy, sex and reproduction would be uncoupled, which would, he believed, drastically change the imbalance of power in society.” On The History of the Artificial Womb
Let’s not even get into the arguments that are so prevalent these days that we should all go back to 1950s values, before the pill, to restore the traditional family. We have crossed the Rubicon on that.
The year ended with a self-ascribed feminist arguing against it because of the recent “Ecto Life” viral video. Apparently, governments will take away the power women hold over everyone by allowing this dystopian future, same advocate argues for government policy to make it easier for women to have children in other posts. It was unclear to me at the end to understand her perspective if governments are good or bad. Especially as one of her recommendations lead me to this amazing article “Womb for improvement” by Aria Babu.
I am for the artificial womb because I grew up in Mexico where I saw my mom’s best friend risk his life and career to perform abortions on teenagers as young as 13 years old from the countryside that had gotten pregnant for a lack of access to sexual education, or sexual abuse with a dose of extreme catholicism. Children having children is the norm for the poor. Malnourished, with a lack of education, and in poverty, was this really what preserving the germline, some talk so much about with so much pride, is about?
In the reverse, I saw my gay friends spending hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to have one child. Never mind all the women who because of diseases or plain infertility did not succeed. Having children seemed something not fully based on merit or want but biological readiness - and as we have defied biology in so many ways, why not in this too?
Yes, we do need to have better care and funding systems. I am all for more access to daycare and for making having children more affordable. A good friend of mine had his three-month-old baby die on his first day of daycare because his wife could not take longer parental leave. And these were not poor people, but part of the intellectual, well-to-do class in New York City. She became a political advocate for this cause and after becoming a mother again she published a book, but I know that the odds are stacked against creating families.
The first extended discussion of artificial wombs was given in a lecture in 1923 by J.B.S. Haldane, The lecture took place at the Heretics Society of the University of Cambridge.
That is why when it comes to biology, we need to create more options. I love how AthenaDAO contributor Victoria Dmitruczyk took on the subject in the article below. She also added the Tech Bro argument on my request, as I know there are members in the DAO who view the artificial womb as something only dudes think is cool. I actually think it is the most women-forward thing we could do to create opportunities for all of us and same-sex couples to have children, regardless of what biology dictates. In a conversation with Paul Kohlhass, CEO and co-founder of Molecule, he brought up that the most important thing Decentralized Science, and AthenaDAO, could do when it comes to the artificial womb, is work on creating open-access models for it to be available to all and not only the wealthy. He is not wrong.
Artificial Wombs - Something Revolutionary or Tech Bro Dream?
by Victoria Dmitruczyk
In the United States, 3,659,289 babies were born in 2021.✎ EditSign Of this number:
861 women died giving birth, a maternal mortality rate of 23.8 (for every 100,000 births).✎ EditSign
383,979 babies were born preterm, at a rate of 10.5% of live births.
An estimated 290,000 pregnancy-related complications occurred, a rate of 8% of births.
In the Global North, we view pregnancy as a beautiful, eye-opening experience. A part of life that no woman should miss out on. A serene passage bringing life into this world. However, this glorification of pregnancy is not accurate to the real thing.
It’s messy, dangerous, and involves a lot of risks. With so many women giving birth each year (~140 million), surely we can find a solution that reduces these complications and improves safety during birth.
Unfortunately, pregnancy research faces the same barriers that a myriad of other areas in women’s health research have: a lack of funding. Regardless of this, there are innovations in the works for reducing pregnancy complications. Of these, one particular solution has seemed to draw a lot of attention, and for good reason.
Pregnancy’s New Best Friend - The Artificial Womb
Artificial wombs are devices designed to replicate the functions of a uterus and support the growth and development of a fetus outside of the human body. To put it simply, they basically act as an external uterus.
In theory, the artificial womb would supply nutrients and oxygen to the fetus while also eliminating any waste materials from the uterus. From there, an artificial placenta would be used to replace maternal blood flow and enable fetal circulation. These factors would work together in order to ensure that the fetus develops properly.
Although artificial wombs were once thought to be an insane, moonshot idea, this is no longer the case. Several studies have shown promising results when it comes to artificial wombs.
Not a Science Fiction Idea - Research Demonstrates the Feasibility of Artificial Wombs
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) was able to create a biobag that held and matured sheep fetuses outside of the maternal womb for four weeks. This “biobag” consisted of two core parts:
An artificial circulatory system flows in and out of an oxygenator, allowing the fetus to receive oxygen and maintain proper blood flow.
An environment mimicking the amniotic sac, allowing the fetus to swallow and breathe amniotic fluid.
These premature sheep fetuses were able to survive in the artificial womb for a month. Although it may not seem like a lot of time at first glance, it is important to note that this study was done in 2017, and before that, most versions of the artificial placenta and womb could only last around 60 hours. Meanwhile, this project lasted up to 670 hours, with the animal models studied showing normal breathing, eye function, normal growth, normal organ maturation, and even the growth of wool!
At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, artificial wombs were used to create mouse fetuses with fully formed, healthy organs from the embryos of mice. This was different from the CHOP study, as these researchers were working with embryos that didn’t even have organs yet. Using embryos containing just stem cells, researchers were able to fully grow organs, with the mice studied making their own blood, having a beating heart, and a fully developed brain. This was done by placing the embryos in a dish filled with liquid mimicking the amniotic fluid (which gives the embryo nutrients, hormones, and sugars) during the first stage of embryonic development and then using an incubator to mimic the womb. Although the mice survived for 11 days, they died healthy, and the researchers aim to scale this device to support a full-term pregnancy.
Startups are also trying to make their dent in this field:
Exo-genesis is working on understanding the process of ectogenesis and scaling this research for preterm human babies.
Renewal Bio is using the research done by the Weizmann Institute of Science to try to grow synthetic embryos for better bioprinting.
Juno Perinatal Healthcare is trying to create artificial wombs to support early-term human babies.
There is so much hope for the feasibility of artificial wombs, and it’s exciting to see that the field is progressing forward.
A Solution For Infertility?
Within recent years, the information we have surrounding the concept of fertility has increased significantly. Although a lot of work is still required, there has been a greater shift to promote both fertility research and ways to improve fertility. The field is rampant with solutions - both holistic and medical. As great as solutions like IVF, intrauterine insemination, and medicine intake (ex. Consumption of metformin) are, technology has the opportunity to exponentially grow the field, and this is where artificial wombs especially have a significant amount of impact.
In the United States, around 9% of men and 11% of women have experienced fertility problems. That is a very high percentage of the population. Fertility problems can arise for a variety of reasons - whether you had your ovaries removed to prevent cancer from progressing or if you face issues like endometriosis and PCOS, having a baby just might not be possible.
The artificial womb provides a solution for women who cannot give birth, endure pregnancy, or even get pregnant to have a chance to have children. It offers up the chance for individuals facing systemic barriers to have healthy children (ex. Financial concerns in certain communities making IVF cycles, which do not always work, too expensive to consider doing repeatedly). It enables women nearing menopause and aging to still have children safely even if their reproductive system may not want to work with them.
A tech bro haven or an actual idea?
As the case is when it comes to most emerging technologies, there are several ethical concerns raised when it comes to artificial wombs.
Artificial wombs are not natural.
This is a common point raised when discussing artificial wombs. Although the female involved may not be physically giving birth to the baby, the process of the baby's development is still a natural process. Besides, technology like incubators is already used in hospitals to ensure that babies born early have a chance to develop properly. What is the real difference between this? It would be a little hypocritical to call something unnatural when the devices you are reading this newsletter off of are not natural either.
It disconnects the mother from the pregnancy.
This is a valid concern when it comes to the baby. When individuals are pregnant, several hormones are released binding the mother to the baby. However, if someone would like a child, it is likely they will still love and care for the baby. This hormonal interaction is also likely to eventually be mimicked in a lab. That being said, if that is too much to handle, females can still choose to have natural births.
We could eventually create genetically engineered babies with such technology, leading to discrimination.
This is a very futuristic idea, and although it is interesting to talk about, policies would likely be put in place to mitigate the impacts of this. If it is possible, then one might say that it is inevitable considering all the other technologies making advancements in the field of genetic engineering. It is likely that the artificial womb will not be the sole reason we have a new type of genetically-modified human on Earth.
Ethical concerns are always hard to talk about, however, they are necessary discussions to have. The question is, do the benefits outweigh the concerns, and can the concerns be addressed? We think so, and this technology could be life-changing for so many people.
Preventing Problems: Open-Source Technology
It is imperative that artificial womb technology be made open-source. Parent(s) need to know the processes of what is happening when their child is potentially being born in an artificial womb, and exactly how everything works. Without this, we open the doors to malpractice, corruption, and less effective technology. Collaboration is key for ensuring the communal success of this technology.
We are so excited to see what the future of artificial wombs holds. It is something that has an insurmountable amount of potential and is a life-changing opportunity for so many around the world.
Other select recommended reads:
What if babies could develop outside of the human body? by Carol Magalhaes
Daedalus, or, Science and the Future by J.B.S Haldane
Discover our recently published Reproductive Health Report
In breakthrough, Israelis grow hundreds of mouse embryos in artificial wombs
A Unique Womb-Like Device Could Reduce Mortality and Disability for Extremely Premature Babies
Outcomes Worsened and Disparities Persisted During the Pandemic