The list of things that can be created with 3D printers keeps getting longer by the day: art, jewelry, guns, medical devices, and now we have bioprosthetic mouse ovaries!
Researchers at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, have used a 3D printed mouse ovary to reproduce a healthy offspring successfully. They hope that someday the technology can be used to create replacement human ovaries. (Source: A bioprosthetic ovary created using 3D printed microporous scaffolds restores ovarian function in sterilized mice)
Previously, some doctors have been successful in restoring reproductive fertility in cancer patients by extracting and freezing ovarian tissues before they undergo chemotherapy, and transplanting these tissues after they enter remission. Some doctors have tried this approach using entire ovaries, but it has some shortcomings.
According to Dr. Woodruff, “the tissue may harbor cancer cells, and the transplants usually only function for a limited time, depriving the women of the other benefits of a functioning reproductive system, like keeping bones healthy. That’s especially challenging for women who lose their fertility as children or young adults.”
So Woodruff and her colleagues developed a technique using 3D printing to reproduce the three-dimensional structures of ovaries that could be used to create “bioprosthetic ovaries”. “It’s just like the 3D printers people even have in their homes, but the ink, in this case, is a biological ink,” she says. “It’s called gelatin.” Gelatin is a naturally occurring substance that helps form the structure of organs. A 3D printer squirts out gelatin ink in extremely precise patterns, one layer on top of another, to build complex three-dimensional structures modeled on the natural ovary.
“We were able to use 3D printing to actually lay down a scaffold that was copying what we knew the scaffold looked like of the normal ovary,” Woodruff says. In the mice, the result was a structure about the size of a pea that contains complex formations, including tiny pores that re-create the environment inside natural ovaries.
Next, the researchers placed real tissue follicles from mouse ovaries into 3D-printed ovary scaffolds. Follicles contain immature eggs and cells that secrete hormones needed for reproduction and other bodily functions. The researchers then transplanted the devices into sterilized mice. Blood vessels attached themselves to the partially artificial ovaries and began functioning. When the researchers mated seven of the mice, three of them produced two healthy pups each.
To use the technology in humans in the future, doctors could remove follicles from a woman before she starts chemotherapy. They would put that tissue into a larger, 3D-printed ovary scaffold, then transplant the device into the patient when she finishes treatment.