The development of a synthetic ovary, an artificial organ that is capable of keeping human egg-producing follicles alive outside a woman’s body, could help support fertility in women with endometriosis and those who have undergone cancer treatment. Researchers at Belgiums’ Catholic University of Louvain (UCL) may be close to this development.
The study describing the method, “Survival and growth of human preantral follicles after cryopreservation of ovarian tissue, follicle isolation and short-term xenografting,” was published in Reproductive Biomedicine.
Endometriosis affects around 10 percent of all women. It happens when tissue that normally lines the uterus grows outside the uterus, where it may form lesions and cysts. Besides pain, the condition causes infertility in up to 50 percent of diagnosed women.
Treatments include surgery to remove the cysts, where the woman may lose many of her follicles. Also, decreasing estrogen levels through the body may result in fewer cysts, although both methods may enhance the risk of infertility. With an artificial ovary, egg-making cells could be saved and later reintroduced into the woman to boost fertility.
Christiani Amorim and her team are now one step closer to that development. The researchers encapsulated donated human follicles from ovarian biopsies from 10 women ages 21 to 37 containing egg cells, in fibrin clots made by fibrin and support cells (stromal cells). Fibrin is the protein that usually makes the blood clot. These fibrin clots were then transplanted into eight mice. After one week, researchers found that one-fifth of the follicles had survived.
“This is around the same proportion that survives when women receive transplants of frozen ovarian tissue,” Amorim, the study’s senior author, said in New Scientist. “That procedure has already resulted in more than 60 live births since 2004, so our results with the artificial ovary look very encouraging.”
This method was initially intended for women who have undergone chemotherapy, which may lead to infertility. To remove and freeze ovary tissue beforehand and re-implant them after treatment can help women give birth, but this tissue may reintroduce hidden cancer cells. Therefore, the development of an artificial ovary could offer a solution.
When the method is fully developed, it could also benefit women who want to postpone menopause or who want to give birth at an older age.
“Follicles produce hormones like estrogen, so artificial ovaries could be used to delay or alleviate the symptoms of menopause,” Amorim said. “The main goal here isn’t ‘youth,’ but to avoid the health problems that are usually linked to menopause, like osteoporosis and heart disease.”
There is still work to do before the method can be replicated in humans. The next step is to study artificial ovaries in mice to make sure they will make healthy eggs.