Startup creates IVF incubator to conceive babies in space

SpaceBorn United, a Dutch company, has begun research on conceiving and delivering a baby in space.
Mrigakshi Dixit
Representational image
Representational image

Lidiia Moor/iStock 

Elon Musk and other prominent players in the space business envisage a future in which Mars would be home to thousands of humans. Achieving this objective would include building a self-sustaining human population on Mars. 

As it may not be possible to frequently send people from Earth, addressing the challenges of reproduction in space is a crucial aspect to consider. And the barrier is not just one, but nearly everything related to reproduction. 

First, scientists need to determine whether and how people can reproduce in a hostile space environment, which is bombarded with harmful radiation, devoid of gravity, and lacks pivotal resources.

And now a Netherlands-based startup called SpaceBorn United has taken up this daunting task.

The company “researches and enables different stages of human reproduction in space, enabling independent human settlements beyond Earth,” according to its website

Series of experiments in the pipeline

Recently, the BBC reported that the company has created a small in-vitro fertilization (IVF) device and embryo incubator that it aims to launch into space. 

The company has created a CD-ROM-sized prototype that will use microfluidic technology for IVF. This disc revolves in order to simulate the effects of gravity on Earth.

The company intends to begin experiments on the cellular level with mammalian cells, followed by human cells in space. The experiment will evaluate several key tactics for facilitating reproduction in space.

"If we want to have human settlements, for example, on Mars, and if we want to make those settlements really independent, that requires solving the reproduction challenge," Egbert Edelbroek, SpaceBorn United CEO, told the BBC.

Startup creates IVF incubator to conceive babies in space
CD-ROM-sized prototype that will use microfluidic technology for in vitro fertilization.

First space-based experiments on mouse cells 

To achieve this goal, the company has been gearing up to launch a series of space-based experiments under the mission called ARTIS, which stands for Assisted Reproductive Technology in Space.

The missions are slated for launch within the next five years. The initial experiments will be carried out using mouse cells. For mouse trials, embryos will be transplanted into a natural womb, and the ensuing phases of pregnancy and delivery will occur on Earth.

If these missions go as anticipated, the next initiatives may include trials with human stem cell embryos

“During our 6-day ARTIS missions female reproductive cells are fertilized. Once in space the embryos are conceived and start developing at an artificial Earth-like gravity level. After 5-6 days of development the embryos are cryogenically frozen and returned to Earth to be examined,” explained the website. 

The experiments will shed light on “what the minimum gravity levels should be for healthy embryo development,” noted the website.

It would take several years to achieve this goal

However, assuming governmental clearance for such huge research, the company is still many, many years away from the potential of human reproduction in space. Not to mention that experimenting with human embryos is a very contentious area of research, and international norms limit human embryo culture to a maximum of 14 days.

The challenges and risks associated with human reproduction in space are significant and require thorough research and planning. 

Furthermore, enhanced life support systems capable of providing a secure and stable environment for pregnant women and babies will be required for space colonies

Any attempts to do so would likely involve extensive medical testing, simulation studies, and careful consideration of the potential consequences.

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