Infertile mice have been given the ability to birth healthy offspring, with the help of the new 3D-printed ovaries.
The new 3D-printed ovaries are connected with the animals’ blood supply in just one week, and started releasing eggs.
The research proponent is currently planning to test these artificial ovaries in pigs, and if all goes well, human trials will follow.
They are hoping also to push this lab-made organs will one day be an option for women with reproductive systems that have been damaged by cancer treatments.
“This research shows these bioprosthetic ovaries have long-term, durable function,” says one of the team, reproductive scientist Teresa K. Woodruff, from Northwestern University.
“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,” she added.
Woodruff and her team produced the artificial ovaries by using gelatin as the ‘ink’ in the 3D printer – a type of biological hydrogel that’s less likely to be rejected by the body, and also porous, which helps it interact with the host’s tissues and blood supply.
Speaking with the Hydrogels, it is a mixture of 99 percent water and a little bit of polymer, which means they can tend to be quite soft, but the Northwestern team was able to manipulate their gelatin ink to give it a flexible but firm quality.
“Most hydrogels are very weak, since they’re made up of mostly water, and will often collapse on themselves,” says one of the researchers, 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,” Shah said.
According to the study, it may sounds simple enough, but the survival of the organs depended wholly on the specific patterning of the pores in the 3D-printed scaffolding.
Furthermore, each hole had to be strategically placed within the various lattice layers to hold dozens of working follicles – the sacs that contain immature egg cells – and allow them to grow.
“You have to house both the small ones and the large ones, and you have to have an environment that can provide cross-talk between these follicles, because that’s how the natural ovary signals for only specific ones to ovulate,” Shah told CNN.
Also, the said pores had to be arranged to ensure the right amount of blood flow through the artificial ovaries.
The research team says this is the first study to demonstrate just how crucial this patterning is to ensure the long-term success of artificial ovaries.
The organs were transplanted into female mice that had ovaries surgically removed, and of the seven that mated after the implant, three gave birth to litters of offspring. All three litters – which each included at least two pups – were robust and healthy.
The mothers were also able to lactate, which means their hormone signals were still in working order after having their natural ovaries removed.
Meanwhile, an expert the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Anthony Atala, who wasn’t involved in the study, told CNN, the ability to be able to 3D-print replica organs would make a huge difference in the future, because once the pattern is just right, it should be easy to scale and reproduce.
“The printing gives you scalability, because you can scale a technology up instead of making them by hand, it gives you reproducibility, because you can print them in the same manner every time, and it gives you precision, because it can precisely place the cells where you need them,” said Atala.
“It will eventually decrease the cost of the production of these technologies, because you’re automating the process.”
The full research has been published in Nature Communications.