UPDATE: The day after this press conference, the transplant failed. Read more details here.
On Monday, doctors at the Cleveland Clinic announced the results of the first uterus transplant in the U.S.
The recipient, a 26-year-old woman named Lindsey, had the nine-hour operation to surgically implant a deceased donor’s uterus into her body on February 24. She’s now recovering well.
“My story began when I was 16 and was told I would never have children,” Lindsey, whose last name has not been released to protect her privacy, said at a press conference Monday about the provocative new procedure.
“From that moment on I have prayed that god would give me the opportunity to experience pregnancy,” continued Lindsey, who has two adopted sons. “They have provided me with a gift I will never be able to repay.”
Lindsey, like several of the other 10 women who will undergo the experimental procedure as part of research at the Cleveland Clinic, was born without a uterus. Others had their uteruses removed in hysterectomies because of cancers or other abnormalities.
The procedure was pioneered by a Swedish group that performed the first uterus transplant in 2012. To date, nine women have undergone the surgery in Sweden, where — unlike in the Cleveland Clinic procedure — all of the uteruses were taken from living donors. At least four of the Swedish women have had babies, all born healthy but premature, and all delivered via C-sections.
Lindsey received a uterus donated by a healthy woman who died suddenly in her 30s. The procedure was similar to an ordinary organ transplant, but slightly more difficult because of how deep the uterus sits in the pelvis. The uterus is attached to the external pelvic vessels, and then the vaginas of the donor and recipient are connected.
Lindsey can keep the uterus in her body for about five years, and must take take anti-rejection drugs to prevent her immune system from attacking the foreign tissues.
“We are charged to establish and take care of a safe home for the baby to grow,” Andreas Tzakis, the Cleveland Clinic transplant surgeon who headed the effort, said.
The 10 women were chosen among 250 who volunteered for the procedure. All of them lack a uterus but still have ovaries. They had their eggs collected, fertilized, cultured, and frozen as embryos, and Lindsey is the first to go through with the transplant.
She will have to wait a year of regular biopsy monitoring before she can begin the process of implanting her embryos into the transplanted uterus. Then, after one or two pregnancies, the Cleveland Clinic surgeons will remove her donated organ.
“We don’t want to keep her on those drugs for the rest of her life,” Uma Perni, a gynecologist on the team who specializes in high risk pregnancies, said.
The procedure has been estimated to cost about $300,000, but it’s unclear how widely available it will be, or if insurance providers will help cover the costs.
“This is a research protocol,” said Tommaso Falcone, head of obstetrics and gynecology at Cleveland Clinic. “In the real world, we’ll see.”