Does infertility caused by cancer mean starting a family is off the table? Not anymore, according to some exciting new research from Northwestern University scientists!
According to a study published recently in Nature Communications, female mice can get pregnant—and nurse their young—using 3-D printed ovaries. Scientists found that, after replacing the female mouse’s ovaries with 3-D printed copies, the mice could ovulate, give birth, and nurse without any problems.
“What happens with some of our cancer patients is that their ovaries don’t function at a high enough level, and they need to use hormone replacement therapies in order to trigger puberty,” explained study co-lead author Monica Laronda.
Because of this, Laronda and her team decided to study the possibility of artificially recreating ovaries to help women conceive even after cancer treatment.
The trick is to find something that works long-term. The existing technology, which can involve IVF, hormone treatments, or even ovarian transplants, doesn’t necessarily sustain hormone function and fertility for the full term needed—not to mention for the life of the patient, who may want to have more than one child.
Incredible advances in 3-D printing technology, on the other hand, could very well lead to more bouncing babies for a wider range of moms and dads.
What really sets this research apart from previous work is the architecture of the “scaffold” and the “ink” used to create these ovaries. The most difficult element was creating something rigid enough to be handled during surgery but also porous enough to interact well with body tissue. The gelatin (not Jell-o!) used here is a biological hydrogel made from collagen. Short version: it’s safe for use in living creatures like mice…and potentially humans.
“The purpose of this scaffold is to recapitulate how an ovary would function,” said Laronda. “We’re thinking big picture, meaning every stage of the girl’s life, so puberty through adulthood to a natural menopause.”
The 3-D “scaffold” is implanted into the female where an ovary would usually be, and the follicles, or immature eggs, get wedged in and supported as they develop. Because of how the pores are spaced, the eggs have plenty of room to develop and mature, and the surrounding blood vessels can get them the nutrients they need. In fact, since the hormones are able to circulate as they would in a normal body, they can even trigger lactation after birth.
Of course we’re just talking about mice here—for now. The efficacy of these ovaries in humans is still to be determined. But it’s a promising start, particularly for couples that have already powered through a difficult cancer diagnosis and now want to build their own healthy families.