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3D-printed ovaries let mice deliver healthy babies

A fascinating experiment that combines 3D printing and mice could have implications for women who survived cancer and are dealing with infertility.

A control pup lays next to a glowing green pup born from an egg implanted in a bioprosthetic ovary.
Northwestern University

3D printing isn't just for plastic tchotchkes. Researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago successfully implanted 3D-printed ovaries in mice, and those mouse moms delivered healthy babies. Images show a group of mouse pups, as they're called, that glow fluorescent green under ultraviolet light. That helps the researchers identify them when compared with non-glowing control subjects.

The researchers removed the mice's ovaries and replaced them with bioprosthetic ovaries, which Northwestern describes as "3D-printed scaffolds that house immature eggs." Alexandra Rutz, co-lead author of the study that appeared Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, likens 3D-printing the ovaries to working with Lincoln Logs, a classic construction toy based on stacking tiny logs.

"Every organ has a skeleton," Northwestern reproductive scientist Teresa K. Woodruff said. "We learned what that ovary skeleton looked like and used it as model for the bioprosthetic ovary implant." The researchers settled on a special human-safe, self-supporting gelatin to create the scaffolds.

A look at the 3D-printed gelatin ovary scaffold.

Northwestern University

Woodruff says the ovaries are durable and expected to last long-term. "Using bioengineering, instead of transplanting from a cadaver, to create organ structures that function and restore the health of that tissue for that person, is the holy grail of bioengineering for regenerative medicine," she said.

The researchers hope their work could one day help infertile adult women who've been through cancer treatment, as well as childhood cancer survivors who would otherwise need hormone replacement therapy to trigger puberty.

The ovary implants are part of a fascinating frontier in medical research that includes the development of bioprinters that can turn out living tissue and the appearance of made-to-order implants created using 3D printers.

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