Northwestern scientists use 3D printer to create prosthetic ovary

Isabel Schwartz, Reporter

A team of Northwestern scientists used a 3D printer to create a prosthetic ovary that restores reproductive function in mice.

Researchers in the Woodruff Lab and the Shah Tissue Engineering and Additive Manufacturing Lab at the Feinberg School of Medicine created a biomaterial scaffold that supports ovarian cells, allowing mice with removed ovaries to bear live young.

The researchers hope to use this technique to develop an ovary prosthetic for human cancer patients, said lead author Monica Laronda, a postdoctoral fellow in the Woodruff Lab.

The project is part of a larger effort in the Woodruff Lab to “preserve and restore fertility in patients who are affected by their cancer treatments,” Laronda said. Radiation and chemotherapy often reduce sex-hormone production and can cause early menopause in female patients, she said.

The prosthetic ovary is made up of gelatin-based scaffolds that are seeded with ovarian follicles, units that contain the oocyte with surrounding, supportive hormone-producing cells.

Alexandra Rutz, a doctoral candidate in the Shah TEAM Lab, said she focused on the ability of the biomaterial structure to replicate the natural reproductive system.

“We’ve actually captured both of the main organ functions of the ovary: hormone production and egg development,” Rutz said.

Laronda compared this process to the scaffolding used in building construction, which becomes obsolete as the building develops. The structure’s porous design allows multiple points of contact between the cells and the surrounding tissue, allowing the host animal to grow around the prosthetic, she said.

Ramille Shah, head of the Shah TEAM Lab, continued this analogy by stressing the importance of the structure’s design.

“Within that scaffolding is the architecture and bioactive signaling that we incorporate,” Shah said. “You have the scaffold and the construction workers, in this case the scaffold for the cell follicles — the workers — to build the right environment so that they thrive and function.”

The research team is creating a program with the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago to develop larger animal models and get a better sense of how this process would work in humans, Laronda said. One of the primary applications of this technique will be for pediatric cancer patients because of the abundance of egg cells, or oocytes, female children have. As women age, their supply of oocytes decreases, she said.

“We already isolate and preserve ovarian tissue in pediatric patients at Lurie Children’s who are going to undergo treatment that would destroy these cells,” Laronda said. “We’re hoping that we’ll have those methods ready for them once they’re old enough and before they lose all their sex hormone function.”

Translating the prosthetic to humans will not be a significant challenge despite the difference in size and biology between the mice models and humans, Shah said. The technique used to create the scaffold is scaleable, Rutz said.

Shah said the difficulty lies in securing the necessary approvals to work with human subjects. The project also has implications for biomaterial production using 3D printing, she said.

Laronda’s study was one of 15 research abstracts out of more than 2,000 submissions on April 1 to be featured at the press conference for the Endocrine Society’s 98th Annual Meeting and Expo.

This study is the first time she has proved her hypothesis that 3D printing and scaffolding affect how cells behave within the bioprosthetics, Shah said.

“The architecture makes a difference,” she said. “The architecture changes how the follicles develop.”

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