How a patient's 'crazy' request for a new womb made history
When the young Australian cervical cancer patient learned she had to lose her womb in order to survive, she proposed something audacious to the doctor who was treating her - she asked if she could have a womb transplant, so she could one day carry her own baby.
This was nearly two decades ago, when the Swedish doctor Mats Brannstrom was training to be a physician abroad.
"I thought she was a bit crazy," Brannstrom said.
But Brannstom didn't dismiss her idea. Instead, after he returned to Sweden he began a series of painstaking research projects to learn whether it might be possible to transplant a womb, despite criticism that the unheard of procedure was dangerous, medically unnecessary, and impossible.
Brannstrom went on to become the first doctor to deliver babies - five so far - from women with donated wombs. No other doctor in the world has succeeded, despite attempts in the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and ongoing efforts in China, Britain, France, the Czech Republic and elsewhere.
FIRST BABY's Birth
The first of Brannstom's patients' babies was born in 2014 and the fifth arrived in January; another is due in early 2017.
Brannstrom is working with doctors at Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic to help women beyond Sweden get access to the procedure. Doctors at Baylor University in Texas, including two former members of Brannstrom's team, announced this week they performed four womb transplants. One was successful, but not yet ready to attempt a pregnancy.
And scientists, many of whom were both doubtful and critical before, now believe Brannstom's work could help them extend the use of organs for those who need transplants and learn how embryos implant in the uterus after conception, a poorly understood but critical stage in pregnancy.
In 2012, he obtained ethical permission to perform womb transplants in nine Swedish women. He then held an information session one evening in the southern city of Gothenburg, where the operations were to take place.
Of the nine women who had the transplants, two had their wombs removed when complications arose. Five women had healthy babies and the last two are trying to get pregnant.
Brannstrom believes doctors in other countries will soon deliver more babies from women with transplanted wombs, and predicts that the surgery will one day become routine.
Emelie Eriksson, who received a womb transplant and then had a baby boy in 2014, said she could never thank Brannstrom enough.
"I think I need to thank him a thousand times more," she said. "He's my hero. He made it possible for me to have a child."