An artificial ovary – An engineered honeycomb of cultured theca cells (top row) envelopes spheres of granulosa cells (GC). The bottom row shows the tissue after 48 hours (left) and after five days. Credit: Carson Lab / Brown University
Researchers at Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital of Rhode Island have built an artificial human ovary that can grow oocytes into mature human eggs in the laboratory. That development, reported in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics – In vitro maturation of oocytes via the pre-fabricated self-assembled artificial human ovary , could help preserve fertility for women facing chemotherapy or other treatments.
“An ovary is composed of three main cell types, and this is the first time that anyone has created a 3-D tissue structure with triple cell line,” said Sandra Carson, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Women & Infants Hospital. Carson is a senior author of a recent article in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics that describes the innovation.
What makes the artificial ovary a functional tissue, rather than just a cell culture, is that it brings all three ovarian cell types into a 3-D arrangement similar to a real ovary in the body. The means for making such compositions of cells was invented in the lab of Jeffrey Morgan, associate professor of medical science and engineering, who is a co-author of the paper published online Aug. 25. His so-called 3D Petri dishes are made of a moldable agarose gel that provides a nurturing template to encourage cells to assemble into specific shapes.
To create the ovary, the researchers formed honeycombs of theca cells, one of two key types in the ovary, donated by reproductive-age (25-46) patients at the hospital. After the theca cells grew into the honeycomb shape, spherical clumps of donated granulosa cells were inserted into the holes of the honeycomb together with human egg cells, known as oocytes. In a couple days the theca cells enveloped the granulosa and eggs, mimicking a real ovary.
The big test, however, was whether the structure could function like an ovary — namely to mature eggs. In experiments the structure was able to nurture eggs from the “early antral follicle” stage to full maturity.
“[This] represents the first success in using 3-D tissue engineering principles for in vitro oocyte maturation,” the researchers wrote in the journal article.
Carson said her goal was never to invent an artificial organ, per se, but merely to create a research environment in which she could study how theca and granulosa cells and oocytes interact. When she learned of Morgan’s 3-D Petri dishes, they began to collaborate on creating an organ. Morgan said this is the first fully functional tissue to be made using the method.