Now Printing: 3D Ovaries That Can Produce Offspring in Mice

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A new animal study successfully created 3D-printed ovaries that, when implanted in mice, allowed for the healthy birth of offspring.

The use of the bioprosthetic ovary, which researchers created with “a biological hydrogel made from broken-down collagen,” allowed female mice to endure a normal ovulation process, give birth and subsequently nurse their young pups.

Microscopic image of the 3D-printed mouse ovary. Credit: NorthwesternU/YouTube

Appearing in the journal Nature Communications, the research, which was led by a collaborative team of scientists and engineers from Northwestern University, holds significant promise for human treatment modalities.

“This research shows these bioprosthetic ovaries have long-term, durable function,” said Teresa K. Woodruff, a Reproductive Scientist and Director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Because the new approach taps into the latest 3D printing technology and a process known as organ scaffolding, it moves researchers one step closer to achieving a huge milestone, reports Woodruff.

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“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,” Woodruff said.

How the Technology Works

While many other studies are testing the limits of 3D printing in the pursuit of organ transplantation and cellular regrowth, the team from Northwestern uncovered a key realization about the material — gelatin, a type of hydrogel — that they used for effective organ scaffolding.

“Most hydrogels are very weak, since they’re made up of mostly water, and will often collapse on themselves,” said Ramille Shah, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at McCormick School of Engineering. “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.”

 

The creation of that groundbreaking architecture behind the bioengineered ovary allowed the researchers to support the survival of ovarian follicles within the 3D-printed organ. These follicles, comprised of “hormone-producing support cells,” are critical to the health of egg cells — and by extension the viability of a live birth.

“This is the first study that demonstrates that scaffold architecture makes a difference in follicle survival,” Shah said. “We wouldn’t be able to do that if we didn’t use a 3D-printer platform.”

How It May Impact Humans

When they embarked on the study, the researchers set forth to “help restore fertility and hormone production in women” who had undergone ovarian cancer treatments or for those who faced infertility or other issues after a pediatric cancer.

“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,” said co-lead author Monica Laronda. “The purpose of this scaffold is to recapitulate how an ovary would function. We’re thinking big picture, meaning every stage of the girl’s life, so puberty through adulthood to a natural menopause.”

The importance of the scaffold cannot be understated, note the researchers. With the right materials, an optimally working scaffold can host immature eggs, lead to enhanced implantation within the body and allow critical elements like blood vessels to form — essentially becoming a working part of the reproductive system, as the study shows.

“Every organ has a skeleton,” said Woodruff. “We learned what that ovary skeleton looked like and used it as model for the bioprosthetic ovary implant.”

The team is hopeful that the new approach eventually can lead to successful bioengineering for humans.

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Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.