Doctors screen women for first womb transplant

Doctors in the United States have begun screening women for a womb transplant in an operation that they hope to carry out later this year.

Surgeons in New York are finalising plans to transplant a womb from a deceased donor into a recipient who has no functioning uterus of her own.

"I think we're ready. There is always more you could do. But knowing what my colleagues in the field have done and what we have done, we think it's absolutely do-able," said Giuseppe Del Priore of the New York Downtown Hospital.

"The desire to have a child is a tremendous driving force for many women. We think we could help many women fulfil this very basic desire," Dr Del Priore told The Washington Post.

If womb transplants become possible, the operations could potentially benefit thousands of young women in the world who are either born with no womb or who have had it surgically removed because of cancer or complications during pregnancy. Up to 200 women a year in Britain who choose to have their own biological children with the help of surrogate mothers could join a waiting list for womb transplants.

The world's first and so far only womb transplant was carried out in 2000 on a 26-year-old woman in Saudi Arabia. Complications set in and she had to have it removed 99 days after the operation. In this case the womb came from a 46-year-old living donor who agreed to give up her womb for transplant while having surgery to remove ovarian cysts.

Dr Del Priore's team has instead identified a number of potential donors who would be prepared to allow their wombs to be used after they have died. The plan would be to transplant the womb and wait for at least three months to make sure it is safe before a pregnancy is attempted through in vitro fertilisation and embryo transfer.

After the pregnancy, the baby would be born by Caesarean section and the womb removed at the same time so that the patient would no longer need to take anti-rejection drugs, Dr Del Priore said. "We are calling it a temporary transplant. This minimises the time patients have to be on the medications and makes it a much more reasonable risk to take to have a baby," he said.

Scientists have carried out womb transplants on a number of animals, including mice, sheep, dogs and macaque monkeys. But some researchers believe that more research on animals is needed before surgeons attempt a womb transplant on humans.

Dr Del Priore has received preliminary approval from his hospital to carry out the operation but other ethics commentators believe that a womb transplant now is still premature. "This raises a set of very difficult medical and ethical questions. I think it's very questionable. This would be very hard to justify," said Thomas Murray of the Hastings Centre, a bioethics think-tank in Garrison, New York.

Dr Del Priore said: "It's up to us as doctors to advise our patients and safely escort them to the best life that they can have."

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