It’s hard not to make the connection with a work of science fiction… Chinese researchers are currently working on a “robotic nanny” able to ensure the proper development of a fetus placed in an artificial uterus. Matrix, but in real life. Their work, published in the journal Journal of Biomedical Engineering (source 1), have already caused much ink to flow.
A fully automated artificial uterus
Concretely, the artificial uterus, or “long term embryo culture apparatus” looks like a small plastic bag. A series of tubes provides the nutrient fluids necessary for the development of mouse embryos.
Everything is monitored by an artificial intelligence capable ofadjust carbon dioxide and nutrient flowsbut also ofintervene on certain environmental factors.
The course of the “pregnancy” is then classic. To the detail that the device is able to detect anomalies, classify embryos according to their state of health or their development potential and alert a technician.
Countering the decline in the birth rate in China
Faced with the drop in births in China, the invention is described as a revolution in an article from South China Morning Post (source 2).
The country ended the one-child policy in 2015 and has allowed couples to have three children since 2021. But that doesn’t seem to be enough to counter the historic drop in birth rate : 7.52 births per 1000 people in 2021. A phenomenon which accentuates the problem of the aging of the population.
An invention that raises questions of ethics!
According to the researchers, this device could reduce the mortality of very premature, but also allow women who are at risk of pregnancy and childbirth to have a child despite everything. But many unknowns persist and the excesses are worrying: What about the bond with the mother? And what impact on the emotional development of the child? Not to mentioneugenics and the risks induced by the fact of selecting the best embryos to “make society”.
Currently, researchers limit their research to animal embryos because international law limits research on human embryos to 14 days of development. However, they would like to go further: “there are still many unresolved mysteries about the physiology of typical human embryonic development”, indicates Sun Haixuan, who led the research. Another obstacle stands in front of them: surrogacy is prohibited in China. According to the researcher, no hospital will want to take responsibility for doing something illegal.