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The First 3D Printed Ovary Has Arrived

No fertility? No problem. Researchers have successfully implanted a bioprosthetic female reproductive organ in mice.
Image via Flickr/Jerry Lai

From bionic ears to genuine kidneys, these days you can 3D print just about anything. This has made the sci-fi dream of freeing ourselves from the confines our fallible, earthy bodies a near reality. Now, researchers at Northwestern University have figured out how to 3D print ovaries that work just like the real thing.

So far, Dr. Monica M. Laronda and her team of researchers successfully implanted their lab-grown ovaries into mice. After replacing their biological ovaries with the bioprosthetic, the mice were able to ovulate normally, give birth to healthy and presumably adorable baby mice, and nurse them. Laronda is hoping that soon the same technology can be used to make an ovary prosthesis that could restore fertility in women, according to a press release. She is presenting her breakthrough findings on Saturday, April 2, at this year's Endocrine Society meeting. (The full study is not currently published.)

Using gelatin that's in between a solid and a liquid state, the researchers were able to 3D print a scaffold that could support the hormone-producing cells and egg cells that are needed for fertility. This is the first time that this has been done. "We developed this implant with downstream human applications in mind, as it is made through a scalable 3D printing method, using a material already used in humans," Laronda said in the press release.

Indeed, a 3D printed ovary implant could help childhood cancer survivors, who have an increased risk of infertility as adults. Chemotherapy and radiation can often have damaging effects on the reproductive system. "We hope to one day restore fertility and hormone function in women who suffer from the side effects of cancer treatments or who were born with reduced ovarian function," Laronda explained. When Broadly spoke with her about the development over the phone, she also added that a bioprosthetic ovary could eventually benefit trans women.

"We're working with the Stanley Manne children's research institute and the Lurie Children's Hospital, which is associated with Northwestern University, to develop programs that will enable us to study the [bioprosthetic ovary's] translation for humans," she said. "Lurie Children's Hospital has a disorders for sex development (DSD) program, which includes the transgender population as well. We've been working with them to see how this could help their rare population of patients. We're also working to explore the implications for patients with genetic syndromes, like Turner syndrome, that impact fertility."

However, we're still pretty far off from being able to print reproductive organs on demand. The next step, Laronda said, is more testing. "We're considering using piglets, which is a common pediatric surgery model, as our pre-clinical, large animal trial," she added. "Our model has considered use in humans all along the way, so we're hoping that streamlines the process."