Friday, February 29, 2008

"Silicon Womb" To Begin Large Scale Fertility Trial

If you're anything like me, when you see the phrase "silicon womb" you immediately flash to some sort of neo-Matrix growth tank, an artificial womb that removes the human womb completely from the picture. Which probably is an indication that the people behind this particular "silicon womb" ought to consider a name change, as that's not quite the case.

What this new silicon womb is, is actually a vaguely IUD looking tube that allows fertilized embryos to be matured inside a silicon tube placed inside the woman's womb, rather than a test tube incubator, before being removed after 2-5 days and then transferred back into the uterus.

The hope seems to be that a more natural maturation environment will lead to more successful implantations with fewer embyros needed for implantation, reducing the risks associated with multiple births that often accompany IVF treatment. It also is a partly practical move; test tube embryos need to have their growth medium changed every few hours. By moving the embryos to a more natural growth environment, there is no need for artificial growth medium; the body is instead naturally primed to generate nutrients and remove wastes for the developing embryos.

Of course, the silicon tube insert is only approximating a more natural environment - the uterus is an equally foreign place to embryos that are only a few days old; they would typically be floating their way lazily through a fallopian tube at this stage of development. Still, there's no arguing the point that, so far as mimicing natural goes, a uterus is probably a lot closer than a laboratory incubator.

I am, perhaps not surprisingly, a little more interested - and concerned - about the ethical concerns around this. There is already a large debate about what to do with IVF embryos that are leftover from a successful implantation cycle, with debates about their personhood and agency and whether they should be utilized for stem cell research or adopted out as snowflake children, or disposed of as human waste. What sort of attachment is a woman (and/or her partner) going to develop to a bunch of embryos that are actually being housed and growing inside of her, before being removed to be sorted and determined which should continue growing inside of her? While I've never had a child myself, I have heard many of my parent-friends talk about the incredible attachment and overwhelming love that they develop upon realizing they've conceived. Will those feelings be muted or mitigated by this artificial conception? Or will they develop stronger ties towards multiple embryos that cannot possibly be carried to term at the same time? From the sounds of it, the tubes can carry anywhere from 4-12 fertilized eggs; what happens to the unused, and what's the emotional ramification?

The medical implications are interesting, but it's the ethical ones that are fascinating - and sadly, don't appear talked about in any of the literature I've found about this new way of IVF embryo maturation.

images from Anecova


Linda MacDonald Glenn said...

Not yet, any way -- give it a few months! Maybe someone will suggest it for the ASBH meeting in Cleveland in October! (See

MLO said...

I continue to be utterly astounded at how disconnected every single post you make on this site is from the actual experience of infertile couples - and the lack of understanding of the basics of the biology of reproduction. No implantation = no viable pregnancy - ever.

The reality is that a lot of things that you find so scary and frightening have a long literary history in the genre of science fiction. And, honestly, that is the genre of today. Only the ignorant allow fear to rule them.

You may want to pick up the Miles Vorkosigian series by McMasters-Bujold if you want a rational dissection of all kinds of not-so-far-fetched technology and its ramifications. She used fertility and fetal rescue as a backdrop for cultural clashes basing things on her actual experiences working in the medical field.

Really, what are you so afraid of?