Northwestern scientists create 3-D printed ovary that could help infertility – Health Care News

on May16

16 May 2017 | 3:00 pm

An all-female team of researchers at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and McCormick School of Engineering has managed to use a 3-D printer to create a fully functioning prosthetic ovary in mice. The artificial organ has the potential to change the way human infertility is treated.

Made of gelatin, the prosthetic ovaries have not only allowed the mice to ovulate, but also to give birth to—and even nurse—healthy babies. The journal Nature Communications printed news of the breakthrough today.

“We started with the notion that we need a transplantable, durable solution for young cancer patients,” Teresa Woodruff, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Feinberg, said in an interview.

Right now, girls who undergo radiation or chemotherapy that renders them sterile prior to puberty have limited options for preserving fertility. Doctors can save pieces of these patients’ ovarian tissue and attempt to re-implant them later—”but that comes with a risk,” Woodruff explained. “The tissue might contain the cancer that they just survived.”

Tissue can also be transplanted from a cadaver, but a general lack of available donors for any kind of organ transplant has prompted doctors and scientists to turn to bioengineering.

Woodruff reached out to Ramille Shah, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern who has a doctorate from MIT. Shah, who also has an appointment as assistant professor of surgery at Feinberg, works with transplant doctors, plastic surgeons and orthopedic surgeons to create implantable structures.

Woodruff and Shah’s big win is the fact that their ovaries successfully boosted hormone production and restored fertility in the mice. This success was due to the use of gelatin, made from broken-down collagen, that is both rigid enough to survive handling during surgical implantation and porous enough to interact with the mice’s own tissues and systems the way a biological ovary does.

The team members precisely calibrated the gelatin temperature and the printing method to create ovaries that maintained their physical integrity inside the mice. Other labs working on similar organ projects have used types of gelatin that are mostly water and disintegrate too easily, according to Woodruff.

The scientists began with an understanding of what an ovary “skeleton,” or infrastructure, looks like. They then built the 3-D ovary the way you do a building. Like the scaffolding that temporarily supports a high-rise as it’s erected or repaired, the Northwestern team used 3-D printing to create layers of gelatin in precise angles that replicated a real ovary skeleton.

Because it was designed with a geometry that exactly matches a biological ovary, a mouse’s immature eggs were able to wedge into the 3-D structure just as they do in a real one. The immature eggs, properly supported, matured normally.

The fact that the structure was so carefully engineered also allowed the normal cultivation of cells that release reproductive hormones, as well as the formation of blood vessels through which the hormones flow. Because their hormone levels were correct, the mice lactated and could breastfeed.

“Our next step is to go from mouse to mini-pig,” said Woodruff, because its ovarian cycle is almost identical to that of a human.

If successful in people, the prosthetic ovaries can be used for purposes beyond pregnancy, too.

Some young cancer survivors’ ovaries, damaged by treatment, don’t produce enough hormones, including estrogen; they must use hormone replacement therapy to trigger puberty. The prosthetic ovaries, theoretically, would be able to help these women achieve regular reproductive function from puberty through menopause without replacement hormones.



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