A Big Step in the Fight Against Infertility Resulting from Cancer
3D-printed mouse ovaries have produced healthy offspring. The new findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.
3D printing has taken the development of prosthetics to a whole new level, and it has now led to the creation of ovaries that have produced healthy offspring, a scientific breakthrough that promises to combat infertility problems like never before.
The unprecedented headway was accomplished by a team of researchers from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and McCormick School of Engineering. The aim of the scientists was to 3D-print bioprosthetic ovaries to restore fertility in women who suffered from hormonal and reproductive impairment following cancer treatments. Female cancer patients normally have a higher risk of infertility and hormonal problems; those who had cancer in childhood will often need to resort to hormone replacement therapies to trigger puberty. Therefore, making ovaries that can function properly is hoped to help these women.
Ovaries form part of the female reproductive system: they contain eggs, and release sex hormones. The 3D-printed ones do no less: made from printed scaffolds, they were able to shelter immature eggs, and boost hormone production. They were transplanted into mice whose ovaries had been previously removed. The intervention proved to be successful as the mice ovulated, and gave birth to healthy baby mice which were also nursed by their mothers.
According to reproductive scientist Teresa K. Woodruff, one of the study authors, the bioprosthetic ovaries are able to function well on a long-term basis.
“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,” says Woodruff.
3D printing has been used in the past to produce a range of human organs. Our newly-made 3D ovaries, however, is different from its counterparts because of the technique employed to create them. The architecture of the scaffold is in stark contrast with what scientists normally use. The material used is (the ‘ink’) is gelatin, a biological watery gel consisting of collagen, which is safe for humans. The scientists chose this particular substance because their scaffold needed to be made of organic materials of a certain porosity that would allow for natural interactions with the tissues of the mice, and with a certain rigidity that would be adequate for surgery.
“Most hydrogels are very weak, since they’re made up of mostly water, and will often collapse on themselves,” says co-author Ramille Shah. “But we found a gelatin temperature that allows it to be self-supporting, not collapse, and lead to building multiple layers. No one else has been able to print gelatin with such well-defined and self-supported geometry.”
This geometry, an important part of the new findings, was essential for the proper functioning of the ovaries because it ensured the survival of the egg-support cells (called ovarian follicles) that release hormones in the ovaries. Shah explains that their study is the first to show that scaffold architecture influences the survival of the follicles. According to her, this would not have been possible without a 3D printer.