Researchers in the U.S., have managed to create an artificial ovary that enabled a mouse to conceive and produce babies.
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A mouse that had its natural ovary replaced with the 3-D printed bioprosthetic, was able to ovulate, mate and give birth to healthy offspring.
Although the structure has so far only been tested on animals, the hope is that the technology will one day help restore fertility and hormone production in women who have undergone chemotherapy as adults or women who are infertile after having survived childhood cancer.
"What happens with some of our cancer patients is that their ovaries don't function at a high enough level and they need to use hormone replacement therapies in order to trigger puberty," says Monica Laronda, co-author of the research and director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago. "The purpose of this scaffold is to recapitulate how an ovary would function. We're thinking big picture, meaning every stage of the girl's life, so puberty through adulthood to a natural menopause."
How this research differs from other 3-D printed organs concerns the scaffold architecture and the material used as “ink” to create the structure. The scaffold supports the survival of immature egg cells, provides the space those cells need to mature and ovulate, as well as supporting the cells responsible for boosting hormone production. It also allows room for blood vessels to form so that hormones can be carried into the animal’s circulation and stimulate lactation after the offspring are born.
The material used to print the structure is gelatin, a hydrogel formed from broken-down collagen. Collagen is a natural material present in ligaments, tendons, bones and skin and is perfectly safe to use in humans. The researchers realized they needed to use an organic material that was porous enough interact naturally with bodily tissues whilst also being strong enough for surgeons to handle during surgical implant.
Most hydrogels are very weak, since they're made up of mostly water, and will often collapse on themselves. But we found a gelatin temperature that allows it to be self-supporting, not collapse, and lead to building multiple layers. No one else has been able to print gelatin with such well-defined and self-supported geometry."
Ramille Shah, Assistant Professor of Surgery, Feinberg School of Medicine
Laronda and colleagues are now working on increasing the structure’s size so that it can be implanted in larger animals and eventually tested in humans.
Martin Ledwick, head information cancer nurse for Cancer Research UK says: “Fertility preservation is an important issue for many patients whose treatment is likely to leave them infertile… It’s good to see research into new ways that might maintain fertility.”