Is EctoLife real? Everything about the facility

EctoLife

After watching an EctoLife video, you would be forgiven for considering it a sci-fi film. EctoLife, the brainchild of Hashem Al-Ghaili, a Berlin-born filmmaker, producer, and molecular biologist, is a baby farm capable of producing 30,000 children a year. The facility plans to house 400 artificial wombs in 75 labs. Al-Ghaili says in the video:

“My new concept – EctoLife – promises to make age-related infertility a thing of the past, allowing women to conceive a baby at literally an age. Imagine being freed from the biological burden of having to rush into having a baby before your 40s.”

It sounds like the stuff of dreams; at the moment, it is the stuff of dreams. 

EctoLife is not real, but scientists say it could exist in the future

Hashem Al-Ghaili EctoLife is a concept, but he says it has the potential to become a reality soon – and scientists agree. How soon? El-Ghaili estimates that with the relaxation of ethical guidelines restricting research on human embryos, EctoLife would be fully operational in 10 to 15 years. 

“Every single feature mentioned in the concept is 100% science-based and has already been achieved by scientists and engineers,” Al-Ghaili said. “The only thing left is building a prototype by combining all the features into a single device.”

Professor Joyce Harper, a fertility expert at UCL Institute for Women’s Health, told HuffPost UK that Ectolife ‘would be a possibility’. She pointed to the rapid technological advancements in the last 50 years as evidence that anything is possible in science. 

Harper highlighted that the first month of an embryo’s gestation can be completed in an IVF lab, and a child can grow to term in an incubator from around 21 weeks. Harper said:

“A pregnancy is normally 40 weeks and over half of it now can be done in the neonatal unit. So really, it’s under 20 weeks [of gestation time], that scientists have got to figure out how to do safely. It’s not really that far away.”

Andrew Shennan, the professor of Obstetrics at King’s College London, opined that theoretically, EctoLife is possible: “It’s just a matter of providing a correct environment with fuel and oxygen and I do think the technologies are there to be able to achieve that.”

Professor Shennan pointed out that the early stages of fetal development – when the organs form in the first 12 weeks – would be harder to replicate outside a human womb. “[There’s] all sorts of biochemical and immunological things that go on that we probably don’t understand yet,” Prof. Shennan said.

The signs show that future generations will embrace such a technology

In a Facebook post, AL-Ghaili bemoans the ethical restrictions inhibiting the research that would make EctoLife a reality. The post reads:

“So, why aren’t we doing this right now? Because there are needless restrictions on research that deals with human embryos. Research on human embryos isn’t allowed beyond 14 days, and that’s a big issue! We need to change the rules and begin exploring options that will help people who are suffering from infertility.”

Ethics seems to be the only thing standing between EctoLife and reality. A feature of Ectolife that has caused a bit of an uproar is genome editing – the facility offers an ‘Elite Package’ to parents, giving them control over their baby’s height, hair, eye color, intelligence, and skin tone, among others. 

The discontent over genome editing seems to come from older generations, with younger generations more receptive to genome editing, as Professor Harper learned during an Oxford Union debate on whether it would ‘undermine the nature of humanity’. Prof. Harper told HuffPost UK:

“I spoke for the motion because I think it will, but I can tell you I lost spectacularly. Young people don’t have those hesitations that we have.”

Professor Harper appreciates the numerous benefits of a technology like EctoLife – the reduction of pregnancy complications, the elimination of the need for human surrogates – but opines there are technical and social hurdles that need clearing before EctoLife comes to life. 

On the other hand, Prof. Shennan believes ethics won’t hinder the development of an EctoLife-like facility. Prof. Shennan pointed out that things that were considered taboo, like test-tube babies and surrogacy, are common today. He continued:

“So I think from an ethical standpoint, I don’t think it’s that challenging. Yes, they’d have to be legislation if we went down that route. But if you think of the nuts and bolts of the concept, I think we’ve already crossed that bridge.”

EctoLife would solve many pregnancy and infertility problems

Al-Ghaili argues that pregnancy can be complicated and, at times, life-threatening for the mother. He also points out that the mother’s womb can be a dangerous place for the child, depending on the mother’s habits and health. 

EctoLife solves these problems by growing the child in an infection-free womb. An artificial umbilical cord feeds the baby with nutrition, hormones, antibodies, and growth factors. The fetus’ waste products can be collected and processed into fresh nourishment for the child. 

Through tiny speakers, the growing baby can listen to classical music, aiding in brain development, and the sound of the parent’s voice, building the bond between child and parent. You can monitor the child’s vital signs using an app and view their development through a HD fetus cam. 

Al-Ghaili opines that EctoLife can potentially extend gestational periods, resulting in babies that emerge from the womb being better developed. Imagine your baby getting out of the womb and taking its first steps within minutes. 

If you desire a more personal connection with your child, wear a VR set and observe the world from the baby’s perspective. You can also have the artificial womb installed in your home rather than having your baby grown in a lab alongside 399 other children. 

Some people opine that eliminating pregnancy would affect the bond between parents and their children. However, fathers love their offspring to death despite lacking the childbirth experience, and adoptive parents share close bonds with their children too. 

Al-Ghaili opines that EctoLife will start as an option for parents who cannot conceive or have kids naturally. It’ll then become accessible to parents who want a child but frown upon the pitfalls of pregnancy and childbirth.