Three-dimensionally printed organs are pretty old hat by now. But while the technology has been applied to everything from artificial ears to replacement brain tissue, working ovaries have been outside the realm of possibility—until now, that is. Scientists from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and McCormick School of Engineering have developed “bioprosthetic” ovary structures that allowed infertile mice to not only ovulate but also birth and nurse healthy offspring, according to a paper published this week in the journal Nature Communications.

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Composed of rapid-prototyped gelatin scaffolds, and primed with immature eggs, the bioprosthetic ovaries successfully boosted the hormone production necessary for restoring fertility in the mice, researchers said.

“This research shows these bioprosthetic ovaries have long-term, durable function,” Teresa K. Woodruff, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Feinberg, said in a statement. “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.”

Related: Organovo’s Bioprinter Technology Could Lead to 3D Printed Human Organs

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Woodruff and company plan to test the structures in pigs, with an eye toward human trials in the future.

The technology could have significant implications for women with fertility issues, particularly cancer patients who often lose their ovarian function after intensive chemotherapy.

“What happens with some of our cancer patients is that their ovaries don’t function at a high enough level and they need to use hormone replacement therapies in order to trigger puberty,” said Monica Laronda, co-author of the study and a former post-doctoral fellow in the Woodruff lab. “The purpose of this scaffold is to recapitulate how an ovary would function. We’re thinking big picture, meaning every stage of the girl’s life, so puberty through adulthood to a natural menopause.”

+ Northwestern University

Photo by Duncan Hull