Researchers have created a lab model of an entire female reproductive system, a game-changing invention that opens up a world of possibilities for researchers studying endometriosis.
Until now, scientists have had to study cells in lab dishes and animal models to understand what was going on in women with the disease.
Although the model has the characteristic appearance of advanced lab equipment, it contains a complete set of ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina, and liver, all connected by a blood-like fluid.
A report describing the development of the model, which is called EVATAR, was published in Nature Communications under the title “A microfluidic culture model of the human reproductive tract and 28-day menstrual cycle.”
“This is nothing short of a revolutionary technology,” Teresa Woodruff, a reproductive scientist who was the study’s senior investigator, said in a press release. She is director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
The organs in the model influence each other by secreting hormones and other substances, mimicking the real-life biological process. The liver was included in the model to allow researchers to study drugs’ impact on the reproductive system.
“This mimics what actually happens in the body,” Woodruff said. “In 10 years, this technology, called microfluidics, will be the prevailing technology for biological research.”
In addition to being unique in its ability to model numerous processes in parallel, the system’s strength lies in it being able to model individual patients. This allows researchers to personalize treatments, taking into account differences that might make people react differently to a particular treatment.
The creation of the system was made possible only when researchers solved a long-standing problem linked to growing cells and organ models in the lab.
Up to now, each cell or tissue type required a specific growth medium — a liquid holding the nutrients required by the cells. But these growth media differed between cell types, and cells grown in the wrong type of media simply did not thrive.
The research team solved the problem by creating a growth medium that was like a simplified version of blood.
In addition to endometriosis, the team believes the model will be useful for studies of other diseases of the reproductive system, including cancer.
“All of these diseases are hormonally driven, and we really don’t know how to treat them except for surgery,” said Joanna Burdette, a collaborator at the University of Illinois at Chicago who created the fallopian tubes for the system. “This system will enable us to study what causes these diseases and how to treat them.”
“With Teresa Woodruff’s research using Draper’s human organ system platform, we have a compelling demonstration of the importance of a microenvironment that permits cells to function in vitro [in organisms] as they would in vivo [in a lab], and the power of being able to interconnect organ models on a platform and operate them in a stable and precise manner for weeks to months,” said Jeffrey T. Borenstein, a biomedical engineer at Draper.