Health Care

Penn Medicine Begins “Life-Changing” Uterine Transplant Program

The team will conduct the Northeast’s first clinical trial for the complex procedure.

Pregnant woman sitting in childbearing center. shironosov | iStock

Historically, there’s been no treatment available for women living with nonfunctioning uteruses, but in recent years, physicians have made breakthroughs with uterine transplants. And this week, Penn Medicine announced that it will begin clinical trials for the experimental procedure. The trials will be the first in the Northeast.

The groundbreaking procedure specifically targets women with uterine factor infertility (UFI), an irreversible form of female infertility that affects about five percent of women worldwide. About 50,000 women in the United States live with the condition. These women have no path to parenthood because they were born without a uterus, had it removed or have a uterus that doesn’t function properly.

Penn Medicine’s clinical trial, known as The Uterine Transplantation for Uterine Factor Infertility, or UNTIL, will be the third of its kind in the United States.

“While there are still many unknowns about uterine transplantation, we know this approach has the potential to give women with UFI a real opportunity to carry and deliver a child,” said Kate O’Neill, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-principal investigator on the clinical trial.

To date, more than 30 uterine transplants have been completed worldwide, and though the procedure is still experimental, a team in Sweden that completed the world’s first uterine transplant in 2014 has successfully delivered eight babes from women who received a uterus from a friend or family member. Penn Medicine’s clinical trial plans to transplant organs from deceased donors between the ages of 21 and 40, who have successfully delivered healthy children.

The process for the clinical trial participants will last about five to ten years, and they’ll each have more than 35 providers involved their care. The three main three main phases of the trial are: pre-transplant (they’ll undergo in vitro fertilization), transplant (they’ll undergo the transplant surgery and then begin taking medication to prevent their bodies from rejecting the transplanted organ), and post-transplant (a single embryo will be placed into the uterus for potential pregnancy). Once a recipient has delivered up to two healthy babies, the transplanted uterus will be removed, allowing the participant to discontinue the medication regimen.

There’s no doubt the procedure is complex, and Penn says they’re well prepared to move forward with the joint effort (partners from Penn Medicine’s department of Obstetrics & Gynecology and the Penn Transplant Institute are all involved). “The strength of Penn’s research program and exceptional quality of care, particularly in transplant and women’s health, makes us uniquely positioned to be a leading clinical research program for uterine transplants in the United States, and to continue to advance this emerging field,” said O’Neill.