3-D Printed Ovaries Yield New Life

By Nathaniel Scharping | May 16, 2017 10:00 am
The scaffold for the 3-D printed mouse ovary. (Credit: Northwestern University)

The scaffold for the 3-D printed mouse ovary. (Credit: Northwestern University)

Mice with artificial, 3-D printed ovaries have successfully given birth to healthy offspring.

It’s another success for members of the same Northwestern University team that in March reproduced an entire menstrual cycle using organs-on-a-chip. This time, they’ve created ovaries from a type of gelatin hydrogel and infused them with immature egg cells before implanting them in female mice. The ovaries behaved like the natural ones, picking out an egg cell to mature and pass along, allowing the mice to bear healthy offspring. The procedure marks another step toward printing replacements for missing or damaged organs.

From Skeleton to Organ

To create their ovaries, the researchers, led by Theresa Woodruff, the director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, first learned to print the gelatin at exactly the right consistency. It had to be strong enough to handle surgical implantation while porous enough to hold on to egg cells and allow veins to grow. Through a series of trial and error experiments, the researchers discovered the best way to print the scaffolding from gelatin fibers that contained a series of tiny pockets to hold ovarian follicles.

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

A microscopic view of the gelatin structure used to 3-D print the bioprosthetic mouse ovary implant. (Credit: Northwestern University)

A microscopic view of the gelatin structure used to 3-D print the bioprosthetic mouse ovary implant. (Credit: Northwestern University)

In mammal ovaries, follicles release egg cells and secrete hormones that regulate the fertility cycle. The researchers seeded their gelatin ovaries with mouse follicles before implanting them into live mice, where they would hopefully go on to regularly mature and release eggs, along with the hormones necessary to sustain a pregnancy. They then let them sit for four days so the follicles could establish a connection to each other before surgically implanting them in mice with their ovaries removed. A week later, veins had grown throughout the artificial ovaries and they began seeing signs of native mouse cells moving in. They also found signs of several hormones emitted by the follicles as they begin to ready eggs for release, indicating that the menstrual cycle was proceeding as they had hoped.

No Difference

The true test of the ovaries was to give new life. By this measure, they appear to have been up to the task. Of the seven mice that received 3-D printed ovaries, three birthed litters, and those mice went on to have children of their own. The mothers were also able to lactate, a process controlled by progesterone emitted by glands in the ovaries. They published their findings Tuesday in Nature Communications.

Although this technique could conceivably be applied in humans, trials are still distant. Human 3-D printed ovaries bring additional challenges as well, because human ovarian follicles are bigger and grow more rapidly, meaning that they could become too large for the restrictive gelatin pores they reside in.

The results are nevertheless encouraging, both because they hint at the development of other 3-D printed organs and because they represent another encouraging development for women whose ovaries have been damaged or removed. Some cancer treatments can render women infertile, and Woodruff’s lab has been searching for a way to give these women another shot at pregnancy. They’ve previously experimented with removing and freezing ovaries, and this concept could represent another way to solve the problem.

Actually producing other organs using a similar technique may be even further off, though. Each organ represents its own challenge, and some contain more types of tissue working in concert than ovaries do. Still, as 3-D printing technology becomes more sophisticated and research progresses, it could one day be an option.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, top posts
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  • Igor Davis

    If we’ve come this far in biological 3D printing, why not do something more useful like protein sequencing to produce real food. Surely that’s not a big jump at this point. The world needs more food and not more people,….or mice for that matter.

    • Tim Yorty

      Igor – I was thinking the same thing. I’m betting that starving people around the world don’t give a rip about this “progress”. Or, if science can get this close to creating more life, when will attention be focused on preventing and curing any number of the diseases that are currently ravaging humanity.

      • Igor Davis

        You are correct sir. I do believe that food replication and disease cures would be a huge turning point for the planet. 3D printing technology is getting smaller and cheaper all the time. So much that at some point, every home could have one.

        • RonG

          Artificial food has been produced in the lab (oranges, meat-like material), but it’s pricey and not generally appealing. People don’t even tolerate a single new gene in their food (GMOs); how will anyone be able to sell food that’s entirely artificial? As for curing diseases, there are literally 1000’s of pages of research being published every week (maybe every day) by scientists. What our society lacks is the will ($) to cure diseases that affect poor people.

          • Igor Davis

            Right on.

          • Marshall Gill

            “It tastes like despair”

  • Brian Wilson

    For the most part I agree with the previous comments. We don’t need more people in the world. I would add however, that there is already enough food to feed everyone on the planet. We have been addressing food production for some time and have succeeded in producing more than enough for everyone. Our problem is we don’t have the will to feed them. Our technology and resources are more than adequate to solve many chronic global problems. We just don’t care enough.

    • XG Anilado

      We may not need more people in the world but humans are still driven by their innate drive to reproduce, hence research such as this one. In addition, there are women who would be glad for this kind of research–women who have bad/faulty/diseased ovaries who would like nothing more than to have a healthy pair so that they can bear children.

  • BooBooBaby

    That’s amazing!

  • LATHA MAHESWARI

    too much playing with just like real

    real is real.

  • softunderbelly

    I have a suggestion, can lymph GLANDS be 3D printed. That would be useful immediately.

  • Prester Kahn

    Now if they can get stem cells so that the follicles/eggs in the printed ovaries are the recipient’s own genetic material……

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