Louise and Vincent have a surprising amount in common. Louise is a 38-year-old British mother-of-two, while Vincent is a two-year-old Swedish boy. They both came into this world against the odds and set the media world alight. Louise Brown was the first baby born as a result of IVF (in vitro fertilisation), dubbed the ‘test tube baby’. Vincent Nilsson was the first baby born to a mother who had a womb transplant, breaking new ground in fertility treatment much as Louise did decades earlier.
A woman’s womb provides a safe harbour for new life to grow, remarkably increasing in volume by up to a thousand times to accommodate a growing baby. However one in every 5000 women are born without a womb. Every year thousands more have their wombs removed due to cancer or other serious illnesses. Pregnancy was once thought to be impossible for these women; however, research into womb transplants is beginning to prove otherwise.
Scientists have been trying to get a handle on womb transplants since the 1960’s, with early efforts focusing on all manner of mammals, from rats to pigs and sheep. Decades later, enough knowledge had accrued for the first attempt in a woman.
In 2000, a 26-year-old Saudi Arabian woman became the world’s first woman to receive a womb transplant. Unfortunately three months later it was removed as blood clots had blocked the particularly fine network of vessels that supply the womb with vital nutrients. Lessons were learned and eleven years later, armed with improved surgical techniques, another attempt was made; this time in Turkey, using a womb from a deceased donor.
Keeping a transplanted womb alive is no small feat. Drugs called immunosuppressants must be taken to ensure the woman’s body does not reject the foreign organ. Balancing a cocktail of these drugs, the transplant in Turkey was initially a success, with the womb remaining healthy for well over a year. However, the subsequent pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. The challenge of ushering a healthy baby into the world still remained. This required not only a successful womb transplant but also the creation of an embryo through IVF that could latch onto the womb and crucially thrive.
This milestone was achieved in Sweden. In an ambitious trial, nine women received womb transplants from living donors. Seven transplants were successful and in September 2014, baby Vincent arrived, born to 36-year-old Malin Stenberg. The transplanted womb has since been removed to avoid the complications that come with taking lifelong immunosuppressants.
The unique club that Vincent belongs to has since received four new members; all babies born as part of the Swedish trial. Although the story ended happily for these parents, the procedure is still fraught with complications. An attempt earlier this year - the first in the USA - failed due to a yeast infection that damaged the blood supply to the transplanted womb. A further nine transplants are still to go ahead in the USA and other countries are joining their ranks.
Last year saw the first successful womb transplant in China and the green light for womb transplants to begin in the UK. Ten women are set to take part in the first British trial. With further research, it is hoped that continued improvements to the procedure will lead to more successes. For now, the risks are still high; the surgery is complex, chances of infection and organ rejection are ever present, and costs are in the tens of thousands of Pounds. However, for those women willing and able to take the risk, the possibility of giving birth to their own child is undoubtedly worth it.