In 1885, the first artificial organ--- the heart-lung machine, which takes over the functions of those organs during surgery-- was designed by Max von Frey. In 1954, the first successful human organ transplant was performed on kidneys from identical twins. In the realm of artificial organs and transplants, science and technology have advanced by leaps and bounds, and the thing that was thought impossible in 1885 is becoming reality. When it comes to developments in artificial fertility organs, new technology is on the horizon. Current advancements in the development of artificial ovaries are opening the doors for women everywhere. Let’s take a look at where artificial ovary development currently is, as well as how it will revolutionize fertility care.
In 2017, Drs. Teresa Woodruff and Ramille Shah of Northwestern University published their findings of creating artificial ovaries using 3-D printers in Nature Communications. Their aim was to design artificial ovaries that could host follicles that produce both eggs and hormones.
They first started out creating a system that could hold follicles. Scientists constructed three different 3-D structures with varying degrees of porous gelatin and chose the one which would best hold follicles and allow them to survive. After cutting out tiny holes in the gelatin and planting mice follicles in them, they gave seven sterilized mice the artificial ovaries with follicles, and two artificial ovaries without follicles. At the end of the study, three of the mice with artificial ovaries not only had litters but were able to produce the hormones needed for milk production.
In July 2018 an announcement from EurekAlert! Science News states that there’s been development regarding human artificial ovaries. “Researchers from the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, a report today that they have for the first time isolated and grown human follicles to a point of "functionality" on a bioengineered ovarian scaffold made of "decellularised" ovarian tissue.”
There’s still a lot of research to be done before artificial ovaries are tested on humans, but the studies are promising!
Endometriosis is a condition in which the tissue that normally grows inside of the uterus forms on the outside, creating legions, cysts, and resulting in extremely painful periods. Around 10% of all women have it, and it leads to infertility in nearly 50% of those women. Treatment involves surgery to remove the cysts, however, a woman may lose many ovarian follicles during these procedures.
Artificial ovaries, however, could offer women who are infertile because of endometriosis a chance at pregnancy. After cysts are removed by surgery, artificial ovaries might boost fertility by later reintroducing those follicle cells that were previously destroyed by the surgery.
Menopause is the natural decline in a woman’s fertility, and it can cause vasomotor symptoms, insomnia, and weight gain, as well as heart problems and reduced bone mass and strength. This is caused by a decrease in the production of hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Because of that, right now menopausal symptoms are typically treated with synthetic hormones, but the long-time use of them could result in cancer and interfere with medication.
Artificial ovaries could offer the woman an alternative to hormone therapy when it comes to alleviating menopausal symptoms by naturally producing the hormones needed to regulate their bodies. However, since artificial ovaries are still in clinical trials, there could be other side effects, including the return of menstruation.
In addition, artificial ovaries can extend fertility for women who have reached the menopausal age and would otherwise not be able to have children. Menopause decreases the quantity and quality of eggs, but not of organs such as the uterus. Artificial ovaries would extend egg production and allow women to conceive later in life.
Chemotherapy is hard on the human body, and it’s no exception when it comes to the reproductive system. Radiation and chemotherapy kill cancerous cells, however, they can damage other fragile tissues such as ovarian follicles. Infertility won’t necessarily be a result, but it’s not uncommon for women to struggle to conceive after going through chemo.
One option for women is an ovarian tissue transplant where part of all of the ovary is removed and frozen before it is damaged so that it can be used later. However, this isn’t an option for girls who haven’t ovulated yet. Artificial ovaries would give all women- whether they’ve ovulated or not- another chance at having biological children after cancer treatments.
Exciting things are on the medical horizon. With the use of 3-D printers, artificial ovaries could be the solution to a multitude of fertility problems, including helping those with endometriosis, alleviating menopausal symptoms, and offering new hope to those who are infertile due to chemotherapy!