It's common for children who go through radiation or chemotherapy to end up with damaged ovaries, incapable of supporting a healthy hormone balance or functional reproductive system.
If you want to fix that problem, one approach would be to build new ovaries from scratch. Medical science is on the way to doing just that.
A team of biologists, pediatricians, and engineers at Northwestern University have devised and executed a method for constructing new ovaries for mice. That's the first step toward prosthetic ovaries in humans.
The follicles printed from a machine in the lab of Ramille Shah, a materials science professor at Northwestern. One thread fell across another, and soon implanted cells started growing in the space between them. Those threads are thin strings of gelatin, joined together at precise angles by a 3D printer. All together they add up to an organic scaffold the shape of a mouse ovary.
Researchers then implanted tiny oocytes taken from the mouse — the immature seed cells of the female reproductive organ — in the spaces between those cells. With time, those oocytes reproduced from pore to pore, filling up the empty spaces in the scaffold. A new organ emerged, with engineered gelatin guiding the mouse's own cells in an act of regeneration impossible under normal circumstances.
In a neighboring lab, doctor and biologist Monica Laronda worked with a team to implant the prosthetic ovary in the original mouse (the two it was born with having been removed for the experiment). They found that by letting the mouse heal and allowing the ovary to grow to maturity, the mouse ended up with a fully functioning reproductive system again. When it mated with another mouse, it gave birth.
Here's a graphic detailing the process, including images of the prosthetic-ovary-born mice.
Laronda and Shah published a paper detailing that process Tuesday in the journal Nature Publications.
It's a big deal, and not just for the science-fiction appeal of a 3D-printed organ turning out baby mice. A successful start-to-finish mouse trial of a lab-grown mouse ovary opens the door to future experiments. It might be years before a similar successful prosthetic ovary is grown for a human being, but this is science marching forward in a big way.
You can watch a video detailing the process here:
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