3D Printing Might Restore Fertility

Scientists at Northwestern University have helped mice to conceive and give birth to offspring by 3D printing ovaries. For restoring fertility in women this could mean a big milestone.

Mice Get Healthy Offspring Thanks to 3D Printing

Fans of 3D printing, to which we belong, have long argued that this technology will revolutionize medicine. Our latest article about engineering human tissue and organs already gave a taste. At Northwestern University, another breakthrough has now been reported: bioprosthetic ovaries have been implanted in mice that then gave birth to healthy pups.

Printed Gelatin Scaffolds Make it Possible

How is this possible? The first step was to print a scaffold where they could later insert the mice’s follicles housing the immature eggs. This scaffold – made of overlapping mini-scaffolds of 15 by 15 millimeters each – consisted of gelatin, derived from the collagen that’s found in animal ovaries, thus resembling the natural surroundings. But the gelatin showed another bonus: Its structure was rigid, yet porous enough to allow for interaction with body tissue – important for the scaffold to “work” in the body.

Next, the team surgically replaced natural ovaries of seven mice by the engineered ones. What happened then was critical for the whole testing: The mice’s bodies showed positive reactions to the implant as blood vessels infiltrated the scaffolds, thus provided oxygen and nutrients to the follicles and allowed hormones to circulate in the blood stream. Three of the mice gave birth and also lactated, which is a clear sign that the engineered surrounding – the scaffold – supported the follicles’ hormone production.

Paving the Way for Cancer Patients To Give Birth

“The real breakthrough here is that we’re building a true ovarian bioprosthesis and the goal of this project is to be able to restore fertility and endocrine health to young cancer patients who have been sterilized by their cancer treatment”, says Teresa K. Woodruff, Ph.D. at Northwestern. Yet, science still has to go a long way here, as the huge size of human blood vessels poses a major obstacle – one which all large printed body parts face, by the way. Ovarian scaffolds would need to be particularly designed to host vessels this large. “Vascularization is the main limitation to printing large pieces of functional tissue,” remarks Nicolas Sigaux, a surgeon focused on medical applications of 3D printing at the Lyon-Sud Hospital Center in France.

Regardless all challenges, 3D printing has proven its potential for another time. What are your biggest hopes in 3D printing technology? Tell us in the comments.