3D printed ovaries: a glimmer of hope for ‘infertile’ couples?

3D printed ovaries could cure infertility and female hormonal imbalances, giving women battling PCOD or ovarian cancer a fighting chance. Here’s how.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking. Every [pregnancy] test that came back negative made me feel like less of a person. As much as I wanted to share my feelings or stories, I kept a lot under my hat.” – Melissa Rocha on infertility in the Huffington Post.

Infertility affects as many as 1 in 6 women between the ages of 15 and 44. Not only can it break up marriages and make the woman or man feel inadequate, but it is also a taboo in many cultures. What do you do when the essential machinery- the ovaries- become faulty? You could oil it up and conduct frequent and expensive tests to see if it works. Or, you could completely replace it. Researchers did just that by printing 3D ovaries for mice, which has the potential to benefit millions of couples around the world.

When the machinery is out of order

Women with normal anatomy are born with 2 ovaries, each containing 500,000 eggs. The ovaries, pituitary gland and a part of the brain (the hypothalamus) secrete hormones to produce one egg per menstrual cycle (usually once per month). The egg then travels through one of the Fallopian tubes towards the uterus. If a sperm cell enters the egg during this time (fertilisation), the egg usually implants in the uterus and a baby will develop. If it isn’t fertilised, the egg is passed with the uterus lining during your period. Progesterone and estrogen are 2 hormones that form the control panels of the factory.

Sometimes, there can be kinks in the ‘hardware’. For example, diseases such as  fibroids, polycystic ovary disease, hypothyroidism and (less commonly) ovarian and uterine cancer  may prevent the ovary from releasing the egg. The cervix or fallopian tubes may also be blocked due to malformations or infection. Also, lifestyle factors such as smoking, drinking and obesity reduce the quality of the eggs, lowering the chance of achieving pregnancy.

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The ‘big shot’ mechanic

Researchers at Northwestern University have successfully engineered ovaries made of gelatin. This allows them to be strong enough to hold the eggs but also release them into the Fallopian tubes. The gelatin is made of water and collagen, a biological fibre in our body. 3D printing, which works like building lego, uses the collagen fibres to create geometrical structures.

In the research, these prosthetic ovaries then replaced the natural ovaries of a mouse. They held the egg cells of the mice and produced the appropriate hormones to control the pregnancy cycle. The mouse not only ovulated regularly, but it also produced pups.

The future of this technology

The aim of these ovaries is to control or regulate the menstrual cycle, from puberty through to menopause. This technology could help young girls who don’t produce enough sex hormones to enter puberty, as well as women who have damaged ovaries due to other diseases. Although this research is yet to be tested on humans, these prosthetic organs could reboot millions of women’s systems and keep the baby-making factory alive.

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article proofed and edited for publication by Lewis Germain.

Image courtesy of Flickr: embryo, egg

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Images from: Flickr- embryo, egg

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