British scientists believe they will be able to carry out the first-ever successful womb transplant within two years. They have worked out how to transplant a womb with a good blood supply which could mean it lasts long enough to carry a pregnancy to term.
A breakthrough in this area would offer an alternative to adoption or surrogacy for women whose wombs have been damaged by diseases such as cervical cancer. Around 15,000 women of childbearing age have a womb that does not work or were born without one.
Richard Smith, consultant gynaecological surgeon at Hammersmith Hospital in London, presented his latest research on rabbits at a US fertility conference. He and his team now need £25,000 for the next area of research and £250,000 to complete a set of studies but have been denied grants by several medical research bodies.
They have set up a charity, Uterine Transplant UK, and say the first human transplant could be carried out within two years if they raise enough funds. Their most recent study involved five donor rabbits and five recipients.
Five rabbits received a womb using a "vascular patch technique", which connected major blood vessels. Of the five, two rabbits lived to 10 months and tests after death showed the transplants were a success. Mr Smith's next step is to get rabbits pregnant through IVF to see how the womb copes, before moving on to larger animals. Previous animal attempts have failed.
The only human-to-human transplant ended with the womb having to be removed. Saudi surgeons gave a 26-year-old woman a new uterus in 2000. The womb shrivelled within months. Mr Smith thinks this was because surgeons had not worked out how to connect the blood vessels properly.
The latest experiment involved transplanting the womb with all its arteries, veins and bigger vessels. Mr Smith said: "There are certain technical issues to be ironed out but the crux of how to carry out a successful graft that's properly vascularised – I think we've cracked that one."
Mr Smith said there was little interest in the studies in the medical profession but the demand from patients was huge. He said: "There's a lot of dismissal in the profession in terms of this being a step too far in fertility management. But for a woman who is desperate for a baby, this is incredibly important."
Mr Smith, who presented his findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference in Atlanta, Georgia, said the womb would only stay in place until the woman had had the children she wanted. "The plan is that once a woman has had her children, the uterus comes out and she can come off immunosuppressants."