FOX 32 NEWS - You may have heard the incredible news late last week that Northwestern researchers have successfully used a 3D printer to create a fully functioning prosthetic ovary in mice.
They say it has the potential to change the way infertility is treated, especially in cancer patients.
The 3D prosthetic ovary not only allowed mice to ovulate, but to give birth.
"We've used it by putting bio inks into 3d printers and are able to print actual organ structures,” said Teresa Woodruff of Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine.
In this case, that structure was a mouse ovary. Here’s how it works: Northwestern researchers removed mouse ovaries and preserved the ovarian tissue or follicles, isolating the hormone producing cells. They then used the 3D printer and a special gelatin ink and printed the basic structure, or scaffold, creating layers in precise angles that replicated a real ovary. They then inserted the ovarian follicles to make a prosthetic ovary.
Northwestern researchers say the key to success was to fine tune the scaffold structure so the follicles could survive and grow and function as a natural ovary.
Imagine it like this: the scaffold, just like in building construction, is used to house the cells in an artificial environment. Once the newly created prosthetic ovary was transplanted back into the mice, the egg cells then began to mature and ovulate. Blood vessels started forming and it allowed hormones to flow. The result was a fully functional bio-prosthetic ovary that not only restored hormone function, but also allowed mice to get pregnant, deliver pups and lactate after birth.
Even though it's a few years down the road for human testing, scientists are excited that this technique could restore function in cancer patients who have lost their fertility.
For Alyssa Kelly, the news is exciting. At the age of 3, her daughter Evelyn underwent cancer treatments. Alyssa had doctors save Evelyn’s ovarian tissue with the hope that technology would someday make it possible for Evelyn to have her own biological children.
"My kids are the best thing that ever happened to me. They're wonderful and I wanted that option for her,” mom said.
Alyssa is hoping by the time her daughter is of age, the prosthetic ovary or something similar will be a routine procedure, and Northwestern researchers say that's a very good possibility. They believe human trials are just 3 to 5 years away.
"We accomplished something we didn't expect and doesn't come along very often in biological research. So when it actually works ...that's what's really exciting,” Woodruff said.
Scientists say this is just the beginning. They believe this same technique could likely result in not only prosthetic ovaries, but other organs such as livers and kidneys, so that transplants in some cases would no longer be necessary.