New Hope for Women Infertile After Cancer Treatment

Updated: May 26, 2017

3D printed ovaries may be the "holy grail" for women who've lost their fertility due to cancer.

Syda-Productions/ShutterstockHaving trouble getting pregnant can be frustrating and depressing, and it’s even more so if you’ve lost your fertility to cancer.

But scientists believe they can now offer new hope to women who became infertile as a result of cancer treatment based on a new study published in Nature Communications. In the study, for which the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and the McCormick School of Engineering collaborated, scientists removed ovaries from mice, replacing them with ovaries that had been 3D printed. These ovaries functioned very efficiently, enabling the eggs to mature, so the mice could not only become pregnant after mating, but also go on to produce healthy live pups, which were nourished through normal lactation.

Dr. Teresa K. Woodruff, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Feinberg, told Northwestern Now why this study is so significant: “Using bioengineering, instead of transplanting from a cadaver, to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.”

Instead of printing ink, 3D printing uses a variety of other substances, which are layered multiple times to create a 3D object. In this case, gelatin was used to create the ovary “scaffolds,” because it was strong enough to be handled safely during implantation and to support the developing eggs.

The gelatin ovary was also porous enough to enable the eggs to become enmeshed in its structure as they grew, similar to their development in natural ovaries, and worked in harmony with the mouse’s other tissues.

Also, the body didn’t reject this gelatin ovary, as it would with a traditional donor implant. So if this method proves successful in humans, women wouldn’t need anti-rejection medication following implantation.

The team also discovered that the angle of the layering also made a difference in the success rate of egg development—30-degree and 60-degree scaffolds were more efficient than 90-degree models, as the eggs had less contact with the ovary scaffold in the right-angled design, making them less likely to grow well.

“This research shows these bioprosthetic ovaries have long-term durable function,” Dr. Woodruff told Northwestern Now. In fact, the research team anticipates that these ovaries will enable a normal ovarian life cycle to take place, including puberty, reproduction, and menopause.

Of course, it will take time for scientists to discover whether this treatment will work safely and effectively in humans, but it’s a very positive start.

If you’re looking to get pregnant, adopting a healthy lifestyle will increasing your odds. It also pays to recognize the early signs of infertility, so you can get the professional help you might need.