First 10 womb transplants approved to be carried out in the UK

Pregnant Woman Bump

Womb Transplant UK has been granted ethical permission to carry out 10 womb transplant operations as part of a clinical trial to begin early next year.

The first successful birth resultant from a transplanted womb took place in Sweden in 2014, and now gynaecologists in the UK are hoping to achieve similar success. If the trial is successful, the first baby born from a transplanted womb in the UK could be born in late 2017 or early 2018.

Womb Transplant UK, a registered charity, says one in 5,000 women are born without a womb, while others lose their womb to cancer or other gynaecological complications.

The charity, which is looking to raise around £500,000 in order to complete the trial, says it has already identified 104 women as potential recipients of donated wombs.

Dr Richard Smith, a consultant gynaecologist at London's Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust who has been working on the project for 19 years, will be leading the transplant team. He says: "As we have seen from the tremendously successful womb transplant programme being carried out by our colleagues in Sweden, this operation is clearly a viable option for those women who otherwise have absolutely no chance of carrying their own baby.

"Terrible consequences"

"Absolute infertility can bring with it terrible consequences for as many as 50,000 women of childbearing age in the UK who do not have a viable womb. We hope to begin a series of ten operations early in the New Year. However, we still need to raise around half a million pounds so that we can cover the costs of NHS services and complete our programme," he adds.

Womb Transplant UK says it has received hundreds of requests from infertile women looking to become involved over the past few years. The research programme is open to women who meet a set of criteria including being in a long-term stable relationship, those that are aged between 25 and 38 and who have functioning ovaries and their own eggs. They must also be UK resident and eligible for NHS care.

Has this been done before?

The first successful womb transplant yielded a baby boy, who was born prematurely by caesarean section in September 2014 in Sweden, as reported in The Lancet. The baby's 36-year-old mother was born without a womb but had functioning ovaries, so her own eggs and her partners sperm were used to produce embryos which were then transplanted to the womb. The organ was donated by a post-menopausal 61-year-old family friend.

Baby Sleeping

Prior to the successful transplant, two other medical teams had attempted the operation but were unsuccessful. One of the organs became diseased and had to be removed and the other attempt resulted in miscarriages.

Why is there a need for womb transplants?

According to Womb Transplant UK, there are around 15,000 women of childbearing age in the UK who either do not have a functioning womb, known as absolute uterine infertility, or who have had their womb removed as a result of cancer or serious illness. Womb Transplant UK says that at last count in 2007, there were a total of 2,200 women in the UK who were born without a womb.

In addition, around 1000 young women aged between 15 and 24 undergo hysterectomy, or womb removal for various reasons including cervical cancer.

Following delivery of a baby, some women suffer what is known as a post-partum haemorrhage, a life-threatening bleed where sometimes the only option is life-saving surgery to remove the organ. Many of these women may have not yet completed their family and, while the options of surrogacy and adoption remain open to these women, these options also carry separate and significant ethical, moral and financial implications.

How does womb transplantation work?

The operation is said to take around six hours. As with all organ transplants, the recipient of the womb will need to take immunosuppressant drugs following the transplant and throughout any subsequent pregnancy to prevent the body rejecting the organ.

In the case of the Swedish womb transplant, the recipient waited one year following surgery before an attempt to transplant an embryo was made.

When the organ is no longer required it can then be removed, thereby eliminating the need for immunosuppressant drugs, which can leave organ recipients more susceptible to infection and illnesses.

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