There's a reason 3-D printing is considered a technology of the future. Using thin layers of structural material that can come together to form a solid end product, printers can produce everything from jewelry to on-demand car parts. (It can also print objects that seem vaguely impossible: my older brother, a scientist, has created 3-D printed toys and gadgets with complex internal moving parts that couldn't viably be made by hand.) However, it's at the intersection between 3-D printing technology and biology that things start to get interesting — and decidedly sci-fi. Following on the heels of 3-D printed prosthetics, skin, and ears, scientists at Northwestern University were able to 3-D print a viable ovary that restored fertility in mice. Now, they're saying the future of human pregnancy might be 3-D printed ovaries.
The idea of "organ printing" — using biological materials to be able to produce organs on demand for people in need for new ones — would be a massive boon for the huge transplant waiting lists worldwide; but actually printing something that functions as a viable organ, rather than growing it in a lab, has its own challenges, because organs have extremely complex internal structures. But this new breakthrough might provide a different view, as well as hope for women in the future with severe infertility problems.
Infertile Women Could One Day Have New Ovaries
Imagine transplanted ovaries, and there's a high chance you'll think of something that's, well, ovary-shaped. But the scientific team at Northwestern, which comprised both engineers and medical researchers, took a different tack entirely. They've been looking to 3-D printing to provide a structure that could be implanted in women, particularly young women, who've been rendered infertile by cancer treatments, and no longer have functional ovaries. And for that, they looked beyond the biological ovary shape to something more intriguing: a lattice made of gelatin.
It sounds like some kind of disgusting '70s dessert, but the science is actually pretty remarkable. Like all transplants, 3-D printed organs aim to be accepted by the body — and many of them work like scaffolds that can house their new body's cells, allow for new cell growth and blood to circulate, and encourage the body "grow over" them. (In some cases, the structure itself is designed to dissolve entirely once the organ itself has grown.) The Northwestern-designed ovaries are made out of gelatin from broken-down collagen, which is would be easily accepted into the body. The engineering team managed to make a gelatin compound that stayed sturdy even when layered, so nothing dissolved into goop.
But how to test whether the 3-D printed ovaries actually work and might support pregnancy? The Northwestern team removed the ovaries from seven female mice, and implanted new, 3-D printed ones, with egg cells in their specially-chosen lattice. They then mated the mice, and the results were spectacular: not only did the mice begin to ovulate, but three of them got pregnant, gave birth to healthy mouse babies, and were able to suckle (which is dependent on healthy blood vessels in the ovaries helping hormones circulate). If that doesn't blow your mind, I can't help you.
The Future Of Infertility Science
Infertility is a growing issue in the West. According to new science released this month, average sperm counts among Western men are dropping, and while they're not yet at catastrophic levels, some scientists are concerned. And that's not counting female fertility issues. The new Northwestern invention, if it can be applied to humans, could be part of an increasing bunch of science hoping to help people conceive effectively into the 22nd century and beyond.
The benefit of artificial ovaries, like the ones produced at Northwestern, is that they'd be relatively cheap and easy to produce. 3-D printers themselves are becoming more widely available, and rather than waiting for years for a donor, women could viably have new ovaries inserted in a matter of weeks. But this technology is hardly on its own. If ovarian removal isn't necessary, there's another technology that's on its way to popularity: ovarian tissue freezing, which garnered headlines earlier in 2017 for its relative success rate in helping women to get pregnant later in life. And in April 2017, scientists from the Children's Hospital at Philadelphia revealed that they were getting good results from an "artificial womb," which is currently being used to support extremely premature lambs who've been born months too early. From that point, it's foreseeable, though still many decades off, that wombs outside the body could support a fetus from the moment of conception, removing the necessity of carrying a pregnancy. That sort of breakthrough would be invaluable to women who can't carry pregnancies to full term for medical reasons, or who have a history of miscarriage.
But the future of the ovarian implants and their application for human bodies depends on something crucial: blood vessels. Medical 3-D printing expert Nicolas Sigaux pointed out to Science that ovarian scaffolds would need to be redesigned to be able to allow human blood and nutrients to circulate, which is currently one of the biggest challenges for organ-printers worldwide.
So if you're headed to college and wondering about a biotechnology thesis in a few years' time, might I suggest vascular possibilities for artificial organs? You know, just a suggestion that could potentially save the human race.