Artificial Wombs Are Getting Closer to Reality for Premature Babies
In 2017, researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia grew extremely preterm lambs from hairless to fluffy inside a "biobag," a dark, fluid-filled bag designed to mimic a mother's womb.
"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies."
This happened over the course of a month, across a delicate period of fetal development that scientists consider the "edge of viability" for survival at birth.
In 2019, Australian and Japanese scientistsrepeated the success of keeping extremely premature lambs inside an artificial womb environment until they were ready to survive on their own. Those researchers are now developing a treatment strategy for infants born at "the hard limit of viability," between 20 and 23 weeks of gestation. At the same time, Dutch researchers are going so far as to replicate the sound of a mother's heartbeat inside a biobag. These developments signal exciting times ahead--with a touch of science fiction--for artificial womb technologies. But is there a catch?
"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies," says Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist and lawyer at The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. "These technologies can decrease morbidity and mortality for infants at the edge of viability and help them survive without significant damage to the lungs or other problems," she says.
It is a viewpoint shared by Frans van de Vosse, leader of the Cardiovascular Biomechanics research group at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He participates in a university project that recently received more than $3 million in funding from the E.U. to produce a prototype artificial womb for preterm babies between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation by 2024.
The Eindhoven design comes with a fluid-based environment, just like that of the natural womb, where the baby receives oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that is connected to the baby's umbilical cord. "With current incubators, when a respiratory device delivers oxygen into the lungs in order for the baby to breathe, you may harm preterm babies because their lungs are not yet mature for that," says van de Vosse. "But when the lungs are under water, then they can develop, they can mature, and the baby will receive the oxygen through the umbilical cord, just like in the natural womb," he says.
His research team is working to achieve the "perfectly natural" artificial womb based on strict mathematical models and calculations, van de Vosse says. They are even employing 3D printing technology to develop the wombs and artificial babies to test in them--the mannequins, as van de Vosse calls them. These mannequins are being outfitted with sensors that can replicate the environment a fetus experiences inside a mother's womb, including the soothing sound of her heartbeat.
"The Dutch study's artificial womb design is slightly different from everything else we have seen as it encourages a gestateling to experience the kind of intimacy that a fetus does in pregnancy," says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, an assistant professor in biolaw at Durham Law School in the U.K. But what is a "gestateling" anyway? It's a term Romanis has coined to describe neither a fetus nor a newborn, but an in-between artificial stage.
"Because they aren't born, they are not neonates," Romanis explains. "But also, they are not inside a pregnant person's body, so they are not fetuses. In an artificial womb the fetus is still gestating, hence why I call it gestateling."
The terminology is not just a semantic exercise to lend a name to what medical dictionaries haven't yet defined. "Gestatelings might have a slightly different psychology," says Romanis. "A fetus inside a mother's womb interacts with the mother. A neonate has some kind of self-sufficiency in terms of physiology. But the gestateling doesn't do either of those things," she says, urging us to be mindful of the still-obscure effects that experiencing early life as a gestateling might have on future humans. Psychology aside, there are also legal repercussions.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the "inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being," with "everyone" including neonates. However, such a legal umbrella is absent when it comes to fetuses, which have no rights under the same declaration. "We might need a new legal category for a gestateling," concludes Romanis.
But not everyone agrees. "However well-meaning, a new legal category would almost certainly be used to further erode the legality of abortion in countries like the U.S.," says Johnston.
The "abortion war" in the U.S. has risen to a crescendo since 2019, when states like Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia passed so-called "fetal heartbeat bills," which render an abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected. The situation is only bound to intensify now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court's fiercest champions for abortion rights, has passed away. If President Trump appoints Ginsburg's replacement, he will probably grant conservatives on the Court the votes needed to revoke or weaken Roe v. Wade, the milestone decision of 1973 that established women's legal right to an abortion.
"A gestateling with intermediate status would almost certainly be considered by some in the U.S. (including some judges) to have at least certain legal rights, likely including right-to-life," says Johnston. This would enable a fetus on the edge of viability to make claims on the mother, and lead either to a shortening of the window in which abortion is legal—or a practice of denying abortion altogether. Instead, Johnston predicts, doctors might offer to transfer the fetus to an artificial womb for external gestation as a new standard of care.
But the legal conundrum does not stop there. The viability threshold is an estimate decided by medical professionals based on the clinical evidence and the technology available. It is anything but static. In the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided, for example, a fetus was considered legally viable starting at 28 weeks. Now, with improved technology and medical management, "the hard limit today is probably 20 or 21 weeks," says Matthew Kemp, associate professor at the University of Western Australia and one of the Australian-Japanese artificial womb project's senior researchers.
The changing threshold can result in situations where lots of people invested in the decision disagree. "Those can be hard decisions, but they are case-by-case decisions that families make or parents make with the key providers to determine when to proceed and when to let the infant die. Usually, it's a shared decision where the parents have the final say," says Johnston. But this isn't always the case.
On May 9th 2016, a boy named Alfie Evans was born in Liverpool, UK. Suffering seizures a few months after his birth, Alfie was diagnosed with an unknown neurodegenerative disorder and soon went into a semi-vegetative state, which lasted for more than a year. Alfie's medical team decided to withdraw his ventilation support, suggesting further treatment was unlawful and inhumane, but his parents wanted permission to fly him to a hospital in Rome and attempt to prolong his life there. In the end, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that doctors could stop providing life support for Alfie, saying that the child required "peace, quiet and privacy." What happened to little Alfie raised huge publicity in the UK and pointedly highlighted the dilemma of whether parents or doctors should have the final say in the fate of a terminally-ill child in life-support treatment.
"In a few years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue."
Alfie was born and, thus had legal rights, yet legal and ethical mayhem arose out of his case. When it comes to gestatelings, the scenarios will be even more complicated, says Romanis. "I think there's a really big question about who has parental rights and who doesn't," she says. "The assisted reproductive technology (ART) law in the U.K. hasn't been updated since 2008....It certainly needs an update when you think about all the things we have done since [then]."
This June, for instance, scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina published research showing that they could take a small sample of tissue from a rabbit's uterus and create a bioengineered uterus, which then supported both fertilization and normal pregnancy like a natural uterus does.
"In [a number of] years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue," says Dr. Anthony Atala, the Institute's director and a pioneer in regenerative medicine. These bioengineered uteri will eventually be covered by insurance, Atala expects. But when it comes to artificial wombs that externally gestate premature infants, will all mothers have equal access?
Medical reports have already shown racial and ethnic disparities in infertility treatments and access to assisted reproductive technologies. Costs on average total $12,400 per cycle of treatment and may require several cycles to achieve a live birth. "There's no indication that artificial wombs would be treated any differently. That's what we see with almost every expensive new medical technology," says Johnston. In a much more dystopian future, there is even a possibility that inequity in healthcare might create disturbing chasms in how women of various class levels bear children. Romanis asks us to picture the following scenario:
We live in a world where artificial wombs have become mainstream. Most women choose to end their pregnancies early and transfer their gestatelings to the care of machines. After a while, insurers deem full-term pregnancy and childbirth a risky non-necessity, and are lobbying to stop covering them altogether. Wealthy white women continue opting out of their third trimesters (at a high cost), since natural pregnancy has become a substandard route for poorer women. Those women are strongly judged for any behaviors that could risk their fetus's health, in contrast with the machine's controlled environment. "Why are you having a coffee during your pregnancy?" critics might ask. "Why are you having a glass of red wine? If you can't be perfect, why don't you have it the artificial way?"
Problem is, even if they want to, they won't be able to afford it.
In a more sanguine version, however, the artificial wombs are only used in cases of prematurity as a life-saving medical intervention rather than as a lifestyle accommodation. The 15 million babies who are born prematurely each year and may face serious respiratory, cardiovascular, visual and hearing problems, as well as learning disabilities, instead continue their normal development in artificial wombs. After lots of deliberation, insurers agree to bear the cost of external wombs because they are cheaper than a lifetime of medical care for a disabled or diseased person. This enables racial and ethnic minority women, who make up the majority of women giving premature birth, to access the technology.
Even extremely premature babies, those babies (far) below the threshold of 28 weeks of gestation, half of which die, could now discover this thing called life. In this scenario, as the Australian researcher Kemp says, we are simply giving a good shot at healthy, long-term survival to those who were unfortunate enough to start too soon.
On today’s episode of Making Sense of Science, I’m honored to be joined by Dr. Paul Song, a physician, oncologist, progressive activist and biotech chief medical officer. Through his company, NKGen Biotech, Dr. Song is leveraging the power of patients’ own immune systems by supercharging the body’s natural killer cells to make new treatments for Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Whereas other treatments for Alzheimer’s focus directly on reducing the build-up of proteins in the brain such as amyloid and tau in patients will mild cognitive impairment, NKGen is seeking to help patients that much of the rest of the medical community has written off as hopeless cases, those with late stage Alzheimer’s. And in small studies, NKGen has shown remarkable results, even improvement in the symptoms of people with these very progressed forms of Alzheimer’s, above and beyond slowing down the disease.
In the realm of cancer, Dr. Song is similarly setting his sights on another group of patients for whom treatment options are few and far between: people with solid tumors. Whereas some gradual progress has been made in treating blood cancers such as certain leukemias in past few decades, solid tumors have been even more of a challenge. But Dr. Song’s approach of using natural killer cells to treat solid tumors is promising. You may have heard of CAR-T, which uses genetic engineering to introduce cells into the body that have a particular function to help treat a disease. NKGen focuses on other means to enhance the 40 plus receptors of natural killer cells, making them more receptive and sensitive to picking out cancer cells.
Paul Y. Song, MD is currently CEO and Vice Chairman of NKGen Biotech. Dr. Song’s last clinical role was Asst. Professor at the Samuel Oschin Cancer Center at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
Dr. Song served as the very first visiting fellow on healthcare policy in the California Department of Insurance in 2013.He is currently on the advisory board of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and a board member of Mercy Corps, The Center for Health and Democracy, and Gideon’s Promise.
Dr. Song graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and received his MD from George Washington University. He completed his residency in radiation oncology at the University of Chicago where he served as Chief Resident and did a brachytherapy fellowship at the Institute Gustave Roussy in Villejuif, France. He was also awarded an ASTRO research fellowship in 1995 for his research in radiation inducible gene therapy.
With Dr. Song’s leadership, NKGen Biotech’s work on natural killer cells represents cutting-edge science leading to key findings and important pieces of the puzzle for treating two of humanity’s most intractable diseases.
- Paul Song LinkedIn
- NKGen Biotech on Twitter - @NKGenBiotech
- NKGen Website: https://nkgenbiotech.com/
- NKGen appoints Paul Song
- Patient Story: https://pix11.com/news/local-news/long-island/promising-new-treatment-for-advanced-alzheimers-patients/
- FDA Clearance: https://nkgenbiotech.com/nkgen-biotech-receives-ind-clearance-from-fda-for-snk02-allogeneic-natural-killer-cell-therapy-for-solid-tumors/Q3 earnings data: https://www.nasdaq.com/press-release/nkgen-biotech-inc.-reports-third-quarter-2023-financial-results-and-business
From ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Could the use of robots take some of the workload off teachers, add engagement among students, and ultimately invigorate learning by taking it to a new level that is more consonant with the everyday experiences of young people? Do robots have the potential to become full-fledged educators and further push human teachers out of the profession? The preponderance of opinion on this subject is that, just as AI and medical technology are not going to eliminate doctors, robot teachers will never replace human teachers. Rather, they will change the job of teaching.
A 2017 study led by Google executive James Manyika suggested that skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, and communication will always be needed in the classroom and that robots aren’t likely to provide them at the same level that humans naturally do. But robot teachers do bring advantages, such as a depth of subject knowledge that teachers can’t match, and they’re great for student engagement.
The teacher and robot can complement each other in new ways, with the teacher facilitating interactions between robots and students. So far, this is the case with teaching “assistants” being adopted now in China, Japan, the U.S., and Europe. In this scenario, the robot (usually the SoftBank child-size robot NAO) is a tool for teaching mainly science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM subjects), but the teacher is very involved in planning, overseeing, and evaluating progress. The students get an entertaining and enriched learning experience, and some of the teaching load is taken off the teacher. At least, that’s what researchers have been able to observe so far.
To be sure, there are some powerful arguments for having robots in the classroom. A not-to-be-underestimated one is that robots “speak the language” of today’s children, who have been steeped in technology since birth. These children are adept at navigating a media-rich environment that is highly visual and interactive. They are plugged into the Internet 24-7. They consume music, games, and huge numbers of videos on a weekly basis. They expect to be dazzled because they are used to being dazzled by more and more spectacular displays of digital artistry. Education has to compete with social media and the entertainment vehicles of students’ everyday lives.
Another compelling argument for teaching robots is that they help prepare students for the technological realities they will encounter in the real world when robots will be ubiquitous. From childhood on, they will be interacting and collaborating with robots in every sphere of their lives from the jobs they do to dealing with retail robots and helper robots in the home. Including robots in the classroom is one way of making sure that children of all socioeconomic backgrounds will be better prepared for a highly automated age, when successfully using robots will be as essential as reading and writing. We’ve already crossed this threshold with computers and smartphones.
Students need multimedia entertainment with their teaching. This is something robots can provide through their ability to connect to the Internet and act as a centralized host to videos, music, and games. Children also need interaction, something robots can deliver up to a point, but which humans can surpass. The education of a child is not just intended to make them technologically functional in a wired world, it’s to help them grow in intellectual, creative, social, and emotional ways. When considered through this perspective, it opens the door to questions concerning just how far robots should go. Robots don’t just teach and engage children; they’re designed to tug at their heartstrings.
It’s no coincidence that many toy makers and manufacturers are designing cute robots that look and behave like real children or animals, says Turkle. “When they make eye contact and gesture toward us, they predispose us to view them as thinking and caring,” she has written in The Washington Post. “They are designed to be cute, to provide a nurturing response” from the child. As mentioned previously, this nurturing experience is a powerful vehicle for drawing children in and promoting strong attachment. But should children really love their robots?
ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold (January 9, 2024).
St. Martin’s Publishing Group
The problem, once again, is that a child can be lulled into thinking that she’s in an actual relationship, when a robot can’t possibly love her back. If adults have these vulnerabilities, what might such asymmetrical relationships do to the emotional development of a small child? Turkle notes that while we tend to ascribe a mind and emotions to a socially interactive robot, “simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is never feeling, and simulated love is never love.”
Always a consideration is the fact that in the first few years of life, a child’s brain is undergoing rapid growth and development that will form the foundation of their lifelong emotional health. These formative experiences are literally shaping the child’s brain, their expectations, and their view of the world and their place in it. In Alone Together, Turkle asks: What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we’re willing to outsource their care to a robot? A child might be superficially entertained by the robot while his self-esteem is systematically undermined.
Research has emerged showing that there are clear downsides to child-robot relationships.
Still, in the case of robot nannies in the home, is active, playful engagement with a robot for a few hours a day any more harmful than several hours in front of a TV or with an iPad? Some, like Xiong, regard interacting with a robot as better than mere passive entertainment. iPal’s manufacturers say that their robot can’t replace parents or teachers and is best used by three- to eight-year-olds after school, while they wait for their parents to get off work. But as robots become ever-more sophisticated, they’re expected to perform more of the tasks of day-to-day care and to be much more emotionally advanced. There is no question children will form deep attachments to some of them. And research has emerged showing that there are clear downsides to child-robot relationships.
Some studies, performed by Turkle and fellow MIT colleague Cynthia Breazeal, have revealed a darker side to the child-robot bond. Turkle has reported extensively on these studies in The Washington Post and in her book Alone Together. Most children love robots, but some act out their inner bully on the hapless machines, hitting and kicking them and otherwise trying to hurt them. The trouble is that the robot can’t fight back, teaching children that they can bully and abuse without consequences. As in any other robot relationship, such harmful behavior could carry over into the child’s human relationships.
And, ironically, it turns out that communicative machines don’t actually teach kids good communication skills. It’s well known that parent-child communication in the first three years of life sets the stage for a very young child’s intellectual and academic success. Verbal back-and-forth with parents and care-givers is like fuel for a child’s growing brain. One article that examined several types of play and their effect on children’s communication skills, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015, showed that babies who played with electronic toys—like the popular robot dog Aibo—show a decrease in both the quantity and quality of their language skills.
Anna V. Sosa of the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University studied twenty-six ten- to sixteen- month-old infants to compare the growth of their language skills after they played with three types of toys: electronic toys like a baby laptop and talking farm; traditional toys like wooden puzzles and building blocks; and books read aloud by their parents. The play that produced the most growth in verbal ability was having books read to them by a caregiver, followed by play with traditional toys. Language gains after playing with electronic toys came dead last. This form of play involved the least use of adult words, the least conversational turntaking, and the least verbalizations from the children. While the study sample was small, it’s not hard to extrapolate that no electronic toy or even more abled robot could supply the intimate responsiveness of a parent reading stories to a child, explaining new words, answering the child’s questions, and modeling the kind of back- and-forth interaction that promotes empathy and reciprocity in relationships.
Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools. But they can’t make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued. That’s the job of parents, and when parents abdicate this responsibility, it’s not only the child who misses out on one of life’s most profound experiences.
We really don’t know how the tech-savvy children of today will ultimately process their attachments to robots and whether they will be excessively predisposed to choosing robot companionship over that of humans. It’s possible their techno literacy will draw for them a bold line between real life and a quasi-imaginary history with a robot. But it will be decades before we see long-term studies culminating in sufficient data to help scientists, and the rest of us, to parse out the effects of a lifetime spent with robots.
This is an excerpt from ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold. The book will be published on January 9, 2024.