Infertile women have been offered new hope after scientists created ovaries on a 3D printer and used them to produce healthy offspring.
For the first time ever, US researchers printed an artificial ovary and implanted it in a mouse, which went on to produce eggs, mate successfully, and give birth to healthy pups.
Although the procedure has only been tested on animals so far, the long- term aim is to help restore fertility and hormone production in women who have undergone chemotherapy or who suffer from other infertility issues, such as polycystic ovaries.
"The real breakthrough here is we're building a real ovarian prosthesis and the goal of this project is to be able to restore fertility to young cancer patients who have been sterilised by their cancer treatment," said Dr Teresa Woodruff, reproductive scientist director at the Women's Health Research Institute, Northwestern University, Illinois.
"Right now, we're able to do that with young mice and the goal ultimately is to provide this to [human] patients.
The prosthetic ovaries, called scaffolds by scientists, were printed using liquid gelatin made from broken-down collagen, a natural material which is found in ligaments, tendons, muscles, bones and skin, researchers reported in the journal Nature Communications.
The ovary walls were engineered to have a lattice-like porous structure, so they could interact with body tissues and trigger the production of eggs, while also being strong enough to cope with implantation. The sac-like structure also allows room for the egg cells to mature and ovulate and for blood vessels to form within the implant, enabling the hormones to circulate and trigger lactation after giving birth.
Dr Monica Laronda, co-lead author of the research, said: "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.
"Our technician removed the ovary of the mouse, replaced it with our scaffold, stitched it all back up and we mated some of those animals and we were able to get live birth. The team is now working on enlarging the scaffold so that it could be in tested on larger animals, and eventually humans."
Martin Ledwick, the head cancer information nurse at Cancer Research UK, said: "Fertility preservation is an important issue for many patients whose treatment is likely to leave them infertile. It's good to see research into new ways that might maintain fertility. But so far this work has only been done in mice so it's not yet clear whether it might be useful for people in the future."
The Daily Telegraph, London