Lab-grown ovaries prove promising in mice

(Reuters Health) - Artificial ovaries grown in a lab might someday be available for women with infertility due to cancer treatments or other conditions, a study in mice suggests.

Ovaries grown on 3-D printed structures were successfully implanted into sterilized mice that were then able to go on and have pups, researchers report.

“We’re learning more about the fundamental biology of the ovary through these 3-D printed structures and this new knowledge is aiding in the next generation of options that we’re working toward for young cancer patients,” said co-senior author Teresa Woodruff, of the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

Properly functioning ovaries produce eggs as well as hormones like estrogen. Certain therapies, like those that kill cancer cells, can harm the ovaries, leading to problems with puberty, reproduction and menopause.

Existing treatments for ovarian dysfunction, like in vitro fertilization and ovarian transplants, don’t provide patients with long-term solutions, Woodruff and colleagues write in Nature Communications.

To restore ovarian function in sterilized female mice, the researchers printed a 3-D structure out of biologic inks to support ovarian follicles, which are fluid-filled sacs that contain immature eggs. Woodruff describes the follicles as fundamental elements of the ovary.

“From that we were able to put in place the ovarian follicles and the follicles then function,” she told Reuters Health.

The lab-grown ovaries were implanted in mice that mated. The mice gave birth naturally and were able to feed their pups by producing milk.

Despite the success with lab-grown ovaries in mice, the possibility of their use in humans is a long way off.

“There is obviously a lot of work that’s going to be needed, but being able to show the function of these 3-D ovaries is a big breakthrough,” said Nina Desai, director of the Cleveland Clinic In Vitro Fertilization Lab, who was not involved with the new study, told Reuters Health. “It’s really important to be able to show . . . that it’s a feasible thing.”

Woodruff said researchers still need to figure out how to arrange for some follicles in the ovary to start maturing while others remain unchanged.

Ultimately, she said, they hope lab-grown ovaries will benefit cancer patients of all ages. Younger girls may be able to use the technology go through normal puberty and be fertile, while older women may gain the benefits of hormone production that protects their heart and bones.

“We’re hoping these advances are going to lead to more options for pediatric and adult cancer patients in the future,” she said.

SOURCE: Nature Communications, online May 16, 2017.