The World's First 3D-Printed Functioning Ovaries
The unfortunate consequences of cancer treatment and other conditions to female fertility have called for an area of research aiming to safeguard the vitality of the female reproductive system. The latest development comes in the form of a 3D-printed ovary that can successfully replace the natural organ and fully function as biologically premised. This is yet another win of the ongoing 3D printing revolution in the medical field. The breakthrough is new hope for women who have lost their ovarian function and struggle with fertility. The new bioprosthetic ovary also represents a huge step forward in the emerging field of bioprosthetics.
As a tiny 3D object with specific physical and biological requirements, the ovary poses non-trivial challenges to the additive manufacturing process. Scientists at Northwestern University chose to create the artificial ovaries out of gelatin. Gelatin is derived from collagen, so it's highly biocompatible. This material is ideal for medical implant purposes.
The challenge is to print a highly-complex and delicate organ structure in a way that it manages to structurally keep its own integrity despite the fact of being made of soft material. To synthesize the new ovaries, the all-female group of researchers stacked up successive gelatin layers to form a tridimensional shape that was resilient enough to be physically handled without disintegrating and with just the right type of porosity to biologically interact with living tissues and safely store the eggs. These bioprosthetic ovaries were so far tested on mice.
The structure of the bioprosthetic ovaries promoted the growth of follicles necessary to culture immature eggs in mice. The artificial organs successfully performed all the biological roles required from them, stimulating hormone production and reestablishing previously lost fertility in the female mice. The animals even gave birth to healthy offspring.
The implications for human fertility go beyond the correction of side effects of cancer treatments and the likes. This breakthrough offers the possibility of extending female fertility beyond the functional loss of the original ovaries. The ability to manufacture artificial ovaries could render obsolete the concept of ovarian aging, and females would no longer have to rely on donor ovaries to treat infertility.
There are many factors that can render a woman's ovaries unusable before time: chemotherapy, ovarian cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome are some of the culprits. Moreover, ovaries age naturally, gradually losing follicles - cells where immature eggs are nurtured. Menopause signals the loss of fertility as the natural ovaries stop producing hormones. The bioengineering breakthrough at Northwestern University could potentially overcome this natural limitation and dramatically extend women's reproductive life because their fertility wouldn't be limited by ovarian aging anymore.
The work has been published in the journal Nature Communications.