Three-person babies, artificial wombs and other groundbreaking fertility treatments in the works

As the UK carries out its first womb transplant, we explore other new reproductive treatments that could soon help create future families.

Watch: Woman with same condition as UK's first womb transplant patient hails 'exciting' breakthrough

The UK has carried out its first womb transplant giving fertility hope to women born without a functioning organ that they can carry babies of their own.

The breakthrough offers hope to thousands of couples struggling with infertility due to various health reasons, but it isn't the only advancement in the pipeline.

Read more: UK’s first womb transplant a ‘massive success’ after sister’s donation (PA, 7-min read)

From three-person babies to lab-grown sperm, eggs and embryos, here are some of the new reproductive treatments that could soon help create future families.

As well as the womb transplants, there are some other breakthroughs in fertility treatment. (Getty Images)
As well as the womb transplant, there are some other breakthroughs in fertility treatment. (Getty Images)

Lab-grown eggs and sperm

A recent study, published in Cell Reports, investigated how human stem cells could be developed to generate lab-grown sperm or eggs to one day help treat infertility.

By growing these human germ cells in vitro, the hope is that sperm and eggs engineered in a laboratory could in the future be used, instead of natural eggs and sperm, in IVF treatment.

Back in 2018, scientists succeeded for the first time in growing human eggs in a laboratory from the earliest stages in ovarian tissue all the way to full maturity.

Commenting on the advancement Darren Griffin, a genetics professor at Kent University, told Reuters the work was "an impressive technical achievement".

If success and safety rates were improved, he said, it could in future help cancer patients wishing to preserve their fertility while undergoing chemotherapy treatment, improve fertility treatments, and deepen scientific understanding of the biology of the earliest stages of human life.

But, experts say there are some challenges to creating fully functional eggs or sperm and of course there are ethical issues to consider.

Three-person baby IVF

While the term 'three-person baby' sounds futuristic, earlier this year a baby was born using three people's DNA for the first time in the UK, as confirmed by the fertility regulator.

Most of their DNA comes from their two parents and around 0.1% from a third, donor woman.

The technique, involves replacing faulty mitochondrial DNA with healthy DNA from a donor, and is an attempt to prevent children being born with mitochondrial diseases, which can be debilitating and life-threatening.

It was initially pioneered in Newcastle with laws being introduced to allow the creation of such babies in the UK in 2015.

In response to a Freedom of Information request from The Guardian, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) confirmed that "less than five" babies have been born using the technique as of 20 April 2023.

There are, of course, safety and ethical issues to be considered, with critics querying the potential long-term health of children born using the technique.

Read more: Most searched-for fertility questions answered by a doctor (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

There could soon be some advancements in fertility treatment. (Getty Images)
There could soon be some advancements in fertility treatment. (Getty Images)

Synthetic embryos

Last year scientists were able to create model embryos from mouse stem cells that form a brain, a beating heart and the foundations of all the other organs of the body.

The synthetic embryos look essentially the same as "real" embryos but do not require an egg or sperm to produce.

Although the current research was carried out in mouse models, scientists are developing similar human models which could help understand mechanisms behind crucial processes that would be otherwise impossible to study in real embryos.

Artificial wombs

Artificial or ectogenic gestation moves the process of foetal development outside the human body and is a development some experts believe could be in place in the next 10 years.

"Artificial wombs have the potential to address long-standing fertility challenges, such as infertility and preterm birth complications," explains Hans Gangeskar, CEO of Overture Life, an IVF process automation startup.

"This new avenue in fertility could address a lot of the barriers to parenthood never thought possible before".

But again there are legal and ethical issues to consider, as discussed in one research paper on the subject.

Read more: Single woman welcomes sperm donor baby at 38 after getting tired of waiting for Mr Right (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)

Automated ICSI

Fertility specialists agree that the ICSI (Intracytoplasmic sperm injection) procedure is the most complex procedure at an embryology lab.

ICSI consists of microinjecting a single sperm into a mature egg using a fine needle, but during the process there is a high risk of damaging eggs due to mishandling or incorrect injection, but there is now a new investigational medical device created by Overture, ICSI.A, that automates injection of sperm into eggs.

"We are proud that two babies were born with the help of our automated ICSI station, ICSI.A," explains Gangeskar.

"This sets the stage to lower the technical barrier to perform such procedures and elevate the results," he adds.