Researchers at Northwestern University have successfully gotten mice to give birth with 3D-printed ovaries, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
Fertility has become a major target for regenerative medicine in the past few years, and many believe the technology could help women who are otherwise unable to have children.
To test this, researchers first removed the ovaries from a group of mice. They then preserved the ovarian tissue and isolated the hormone-producing cells that support immature eggs. Using a 3D printer, the team next printed the basic structure of the ovary and dosed it with cultured ovarian follicles. Those were then transplanted back into the mice, where their egg cells began to grow. Not only did the transplant go well, but the mice ovulated normally, mated, and gave birth to healthy offspring.
This is not the first time researchers have successfully replaced ovaries in mice. However, this study is unique because the team conducted the process with gelatin, a biomaterial that makes up most soft tissue. That change allowed them to create self-supporting structures that were rigid enough to stand up to surgery, but also porous enough to work with the mouse’s body tissues.
“This research shows these bioprosthetic ovaries have long-term, durable function,” said study co-author Teresa K. Woodruff, a reproductive scientist, and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University, in a statement. “Using bioengineering, instead of transplanting from a cadaver, to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.”
The process is important because the team wants to not only help women get pregnant, they want to restore the entire endocrine system as well. This could help patients with diseases such as cancer have normal hormone function throughout all stages of their life.
Now that the tests have worked in mice, the team plans to figure out how to translate the process to humans. Human ovaries are much bigger and a lot more complicated than those of mice, so the next step is to test on pigs.
“This is less than 10 years away from people,” added Woodruff, according to Gizmodo. “We’re just not there yet.”