Scientists have developed a new world of three-dimensional (3-D) printed organs that includes implanted ovary structures which can actually ovulate and may help childhood cancer survivors to produce healthy children.
The research project removed the ovaries from a female mouse and replaced them with a 3D printed bioprosthetic ovary, by doing so the mouse was able to ovulate and even reproduce.
It sounds simple enough, but the survival of the organs depended wholly on the specific patterning of the pores in the 3D-printed scaffolding.
Scaffold for bioprosthetic mouse ovary printed with gelatin: A scientist holds a bioprosthetic mouse ovary made of gelatin with tweezers.
While more research is necessary before these printed organs can be translated to be usable by people, Laronda said they hope to use 3D-printed ovaries for fertility restoration and hormone production.
"We had live birth from the female mice that we had sterilized by taking out the ovary so we completely restored their fertility", Woodruff said.
Woodruff said researchers still need to figure out how to arrange for some follicles in the ovary to start maturing while others remain unchanged.
"The idea would be that a young cancer patient who has to undergo chemotherapy would have an ovary taken out before the first sterilization treatment, that tissue preserved, her ovarian follicles isolated and then when she's ready we could give her a new ovary", Teresa Woodruff, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Northwestern told Gizmodo. So the researchers punched tiny circles out of the tightly woven structures and stocked the ovaries with 40 to 50 follicles.
The researchers created a structure that was rigid enough to stand up to surgery and which was porous enough to work with the mouse's body tissues. The gelatin was built in multiple layers that made it sturdy, and so it didn't collapse.
This study is just one example of the possibilities afforded by 3-D printing, according to Woodruff. "Nobody else has possessed the capacity to print gelatin with such all around characterized and self-upheld geometry". We tested different architectural designs using precise 3D printing techniques to best extrude gelatin and give us a scaffold that would meet these criteria.
The study was carried out by researchers from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and McCormick School of Engineering.
But other researchers are working on ways to produce these from stem cells, which could eventually allow the artificial construction of a complete ovary with eggs genetically related to the woman.
"We wouldn't be able to do that if we didn't use a 3-D printer platform". The scaffold supported both the immature eggs and the follicles, while allowing enough space for the eggs to mature and for the ovary to form blood vessels, letting hormones circulate and trigger lactation after birth. "We're thinking big picture, meaning every stage of the girl's life, so puberty through adulthood to a natural menopause", she said.
The researchers allowed the mice to mate, and three of the females gave birth to healthy litters, the team reports today in Nature Communications. "We realized what that ovary skeleton looked like and utilized it as a model for the bioprosthetic ovary embed".