Many women face fertility problems following treatment for cancer. However, a US research team has offered new hope to female cancer patients wishing to have children, by creating the world’s first artificial ovary capable of developing human egg cells.
Following chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the ovary is often damaged, presenting a significant barrier to conception. Currently the only way to tackle infertility caused by ovarian failure is either through IVF using a limited number of mature eggs taken from the patient, or egg donation. Or surgically removing and freezing tissue from the ovary prior to treatment, and subsequently transplanting it back.
Now researchers at Brown University, along with the Women and Infants Hospital in Rhode Island have potentially found a means to bypass these procedures by creating a functional ovary from cells donated by healthy women of reproductive age.
To do this, they used a '3D Petri dish' made of mouldable gel, to allow theca cells – one of the two key types of ovarian support cell - to form a honeycomb structure. They then used the other supporting cell type – granulosa cells – to encapsulate the immature egg cells, and inserted this mixture into the honeycomb. This led to all three cell types coming together in a three dimensional arrangement mimicking a real ovary, which remained viable in the culture dish for up to a week.
However, the key finding is this 3D arrangement of the three ovarian cell types was able to develop the immature egg cell to its fully mature stage, ready to be released into the womb.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, not only has implications for preserving the fertility of female cancer patients, but could also provide a new model for research into the factors causing infertility in women of reproductive age.
Professor Sandra Carson, an expert in obstetrics and gynaecology at Brown University and senior researcher on the study told the Daily Telegraph: 'this really is very, very, very new and is the first success in using 3D tissue engineering principles'.
The Daily Telegraph also quoted Professor Richard Fleming, director of the Glasgow Centre for Reproductive Medicine fertility unit, as saying: 'it is a significant step along a long pathway but really quite an important one'.