London: First it was IVF, then it was freezing eggs – now there may be another form of technology to help women boost their chances of having a baby: 3D printed ovaries.
This could help not only women who have undergone cancer treatment, but those who have experienced problems such as early menopause.
It may sound the stuff of science fiction, but the groundbreaking technique has already been tested.
In a study reported earlier this month, mice implanted with the 3D printed ovaries were able to go on to deliver healthy babies and had normal hormone cycles, so could nurse them too. These babies were able in turn to reproduce their own healthy young.
The researchers, who presented their findings at the Endocrine Society conference, say the same technology could be used one day to restore human fertility. Infertility in women is linked to a number of causes, including cancer treatment, early menopause or genetic diseases – but essentially the ovaries stop working.
The idea behind the new technology is to replace the faulty ovary. Scientists start with a digital image of what they want to reproduce and the 3D printer then prints out layers on top of each other to create a 3D shape (the material used to “build” the structure is fired out of the printer like ink).
The material used varies depending on what’s being made: in the ovary study, it was gelatin.
Scientists at Northwestern University in the US printed a spherical “scaffold” made from the gelatin – deemed safe, as it’s a protein derived from keratin, the most abundant scaffolding material found naturally in our bodies.
Once the ovary was “printed”, the researchers inserted oestrogen-producing cells and the tiny structures, known as oocytes, which eventually mature into eggs: both derived from human cells.
The gelatin scaffold has “pores”, so that once it was implanted, nutrients from the bloodstream would flow through to help the eggs grow.
The whole structure was then filled with green dye and implanted into mice. When the babies were born, they lit up green under a special scan, indicating they’d been produced by an egg released from the 3D printed ovary.
The researchers are now planning studies in pigs to help identify side effects before moving on to human trials, which could be years off.
The focus is primarily on patients whose fertility has been affected as a result of medical treatment, for example women who have had chemotherapy or radiotherapy
The idea is that they would have their eggs removed and frozen before cancer treatment, with these then incorporated into the 3D printed ovaries and transplanted back in once the cancer treatment is over.
However, there could be much wider applications for women with fertility issues, says Dr Channa Jayasena, a consultant in reproductive endocrinology and andrology at Imperial College and Hammersmith Hospital, London.
It could also help women who have gone through an early menopause, Jayasena says, because the 3D printed ovary was also able to restore hormonal secretions. “This could theoretically free younger women from having to take hormone replacement therapy pills,” he adds.
Jayasena cautions that the results in mice don’t mean the technology will definitely work in humans. But the fact that it was possible to create a 3D printed ovary and restore fertility is “extremely exciting”, he says.
Another use for this technology is in women who use donor eggs. This practice is becoming increasingly popular for women whose ovaries don’t respond to other fertility treatments.
This is just one of a number of promising new 3D technologies being developed.