Roughly half of humanity does just fine without a uterus. The rest of us only experience function during a minor (approximately 12 -48 years of age) portion of our life cycle. While even those years of uterine function remain essential for the survival of our species (despite the amazing reproductive technologies available today), they are not for the individual’s survival. For this reason, a uterus- of which there has been one publicly known successful transplant survivor to date – falls into the category of “Quality of Life” transplants. Different from the other organs in that category – the hand, face and larynx-, this is the first vascularized (with a specific reattached blood supply) organ transplant of any type that is intended to be temporary. What a mind boggling concept! It seems that the patient and transplant team expect to stop the anti-rejection medications and remove the uterus following the conclusion of child bearing. Quite logical actually. Why keep a woman on immunosuppression one moment longer than necessary?
Still, this new area raises revolutionary questions.
- Does it make sense to try to control the immune system’s response with potent drugs that can cause life threatening infections and cancers just for a few years and to hope for recovery of that system through withdrawal of the medications and (presumably) the uterus?
- Will the immune system recover back to baseline? Are experiences with failed kidney transplantation an appropriate model?
- Are there long-term consequences for the patient?
- Who should pay for the privilege of this non-life saving transplant?
- Are there really enough resources available to support widespread use of a therapy that is not required and may indeed be harmful?
- If not, and it will only be available to wealthy individuals, should they be permitted to engage the nation’s network of donor identification and the organ allocation system in order to find the needed uterus?
- If not through that means, how will they find a uterus?
- Is it reasonable to intentionally expose a helpless fetus to development while receiving immunosuppressants? To the unknown impact of growth within a transplanted uterus? Who should consent for that fetus?
- Since all nerves to the uterus were cut when it was removed from the donor will the patient/recipient feel contractions (!)?
Yet another typical day in donation and transplantation. A real life situation that could not have been imagined if one had tried. Never a boring day. Trying to achieve equity. Failing to do so because of the resource shortfall. Ethical twists and turns. Learning something every single day.
Those who have never faced infertility issues may not fully understand the strength of the drive for procreation which must be the motivation for a uterine transplant. Among the amazing range of available reproductive technologies, none quite match up to this one. The closest, the use of a gestational surrogate to carry your pregnancy is still not the equivalent of carrying your own pregnancy, to feeling life within your body, or to delivering your own child. The patient’s interest in this transplant is quite understandable. Whether the investigators should perform it when more standard approaches would likely produce a baby with greater certainty is the key, new question on the table.
Thus far, the world has been notified that a first pregnancy has occurred through in vitro fertilization (IVF) and is six weeks along. This patient was also the world’s first successful recipient of a uterus transplant. Since then a Swedish team has performed 2 successful mother-to-daughter uterus transplants. Despite the questions and reservations that come to mind, this incredible step in the science and medicine of transplantation now involves a real woman (her name is Derya Sert) and her fetus (with an audible heartbeat). It will be a privilege to provide subsequent comments on even more progress as they share their experiences with the world.