The 3-D printed bioprosthetic ovary, as it’s termed, is “the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine,” said Teresa K. Woodruff, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
“The long-term goal for this is cancer patients,” Woodruff said. She hopes this new research, a collaboration with other scientists including Ramille Shah, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at McCormick School of Engineering, will result in a way to restore fertility in women who underwent life-preserving cancer treatments that rendered them sterile.
Scaffold for growth
Ovaries are essential to the female reproductive system. Not only do these glandular organs produce hormones, when healthy, they release at least one egg each month for possible fertilization.
The basic unit of the ovary is the follicle, each of which contains a single egg surrounded by the cells that make the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
“Every month, there is this really remarkable event,” Woodruff said. “The ovary breaks down under hormonal control and allows the oocyte, the female egg, to move from the inside to the outside, and it moves into the fallopian tube, where it is fertilized.”
For an artificial ovary to be functional, it would need to facilitate ovulation.
Faced with this task, Shah and her colleagues created a 3-D printed structure — essentially a scaffold on which to embed follicles — made out of hydrogels, a material that is 99% water with a little polymer in it to give it strength. Shah and her colleagues also endowed their scaffolding material with pores in which follicles could be placed.
“What that does is, it provides follicles with the space to grow,” Shah said. “But also it allows space for blood vessels to infiltrate the scaffold without degrading the material.”