SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Three-D printers are being used these days to make all kinds of things - jewelry, artwork, or even guns. Now, scientists have used a 3-D printer to create a functioning mouse ovary. Yes. NPR's Rob Stein explains.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: So you're probably thinking, why in the world would anyone want to use a 3-D printer to print an ovary? Well, Teresa Woodruff at Northwestern University says, there's a really good reason.
TERESA WOODRUFF: My work has been on trying to preserve and restore fertility to young cancer patients who will survive their cancer treatment. But oftentimes, that same life-preserving treatment can be fertility threatening.
STEIN: The chemotherapy that saves their lives destroys their ovaries, leaving them infertile. So Woodruff decided to see if she could use a 3-D printer to help them.
WOODRUFF: It's just like the 3-D printers people even have in their homes, but the ink in this case is a biological ink. It's called gelatin.
STEIN: Which is a naturally occurring substance that helps form the skeletons of organs. The 3-D printer squirts out the gelatin ink in very precise patterns, one layer on top of another, to create a complex three-dimensional structure.
WOODRUFF: And so we are able to use 3-D printing to actually lay down a scaffold that was copying what we knew the scaffold looked like of the normal ovary.
STEIN: It's about the size of an eraser at the end of a pencil. Next, they put tissue known as follicles inside the scaffolds. Follicles contain eggs and are surrounded by cells that pump out hormones necessary for reproduction. Woodruff calls it a bio prosthetic.
WOODRUFF: And the bio prosthetic was then transplanted into a mouse that had been sterilized. And now, that tissue could produce the hormones, estrogens and progesterones. And when we mated that animal, the follicles were functional. They ovulated, released an egg, and we had live, healthy offspring.
STEIN: In the journal Nature Communications, the researchers report that 3 out of 7 mice that got these printed ovaries had healthy pups.
WOODRUFF: Well, our goal is to be able to develop these ovarian bio prosthetics for our cancer patients who have lost ovarian function.
STEIN: By removing some of their follicles before they get treated, putting them into bigger ovary scaffolds printed on 3-D printers, and then transplanting them into women when they're done with their chemo.
WOODRUFF: I think that it's really the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine.
STEIN: Other experts agree.
KUTLUK OKTAY: I found this paper very exciting.
STEIN: Kutluk Oktay specializes in this kind of research at New York Medical College. He says, a lot more research is needed to know whether this sort of thing could work in humans, but he's optimistic.
OKTAY: I think it does open a new avenue in the area of reproductive biology and fertility.
STEIN: Woodruff has already started trying to create human ovaries this way and hopes to start testing a 3-D printed human ovary within a couple of years. Rob Stein, NPR News.
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