How Do You Make an Artificial Ovary?


Mary Stutzman/MEDILL

“Did you hear about the bovine ovaries?”

A technician asks the question as he walks into the lab, followed by a mailman carrying a large box.

Researchers put down pipettes, and gather around the well-sealed box.

“Here are the ovaries—do you know who ordered them?” another researcher questions.

“I ordered four,” says her colleague, referring to the reproductive tracts in the delivery.

“Oh so they’re yours!” Another scientist reaches for a razor blade.

“Don’t open them yet—trust me you don’t want to open them yet,” another technician yells as she runs to get face masks and gloves.

It’s comical commotion, but the cow reproductive parts in that box could become a future solution for infertility due to cancer treatment. The researchers remove the slimy parts and slide them into large beakers.  

How do you make an artificial ovary? 

Researchers from the Woodruff Lab at the Women’s Health Research Institute in Chicago are trying to do just that. The institute is part of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Part of a new approach to restore fertility after chemotherapy, researchers hope to grow the cells from a normal ovary that make estrogen, then reproduce a synthetic organ in the lab.

They begin by “decellularizing” a cow ovary—kind of like dehydrating—which destroys all surrounding cells and leaves only a dry scaffold.

“There’s no DNA, no cell structures just the extracellular matrix,which is just a 3D platform for you to put other things onto,” explains technician Kelly Whelan. 

Scientists attach mouse ovary cells to this framework that, if they take, will act like an ovary. The team then transplants these cells back into mice that have had their ovaries removed. 

Post doctoral fellow Monica Laronda punches 3 mm circles of decellularized bovine tissue and grafts them onto mouse kidneys the size of a bean. She explains that the grafts become like an “organ within an organ” replacing an ovary’s endocrine function and producing estrogen for the mouse.

Using decellularized structure to bioengineer different types of body cells has worked with other organs but artificial ovaries are a new concept. Transplant surgeons have applied the technique to livers and hearts, but the Woodruff Lab hopes to create an organ that eventually could help restore fertility for future cancer patients.

“Our focus is what happens to the women who go through chemotherapy and have toxic treatments and therefore their ovary doesn’t work—it doesn’t produce the estrogen or progesterone they need,” Laronda says.

She says the idea for decellularization developed as a result of the shortage of tissue donors, and could provide a solution.

“If we get an organ that’s not a match then maybe we can at least save the scaffold,” she says.

Woodruff researchers are working in steps.

First, they need to isolate and grow the cells within the ovary that produce hormones.

Next, they hope to make a 3D artificial organ by growing hormone-producing cells onto the decellularized scaffold. Then they can put the new organ into mice to make estrogen and replace the native ovaries that were removed.

Laronda and Whelan say that human trials are still years away. If successful, these cow ovary experiments could lead toward that goal.

Originally published by Medill Reports Chicago



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