In a recent medical breakthrough, surgeons and researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center may have succeeded in building functional ovarian tissue in the lab. Researchers have suggested that these in vitro artificial ovaries may be able to replace non-functional ones in women.
The loss of ovarian function occurs naturally during menopause, but may also occur as a result of radiation and chemotherapy for cancer treatment, or in young women with premature ovarian failure. Non-functioning ovaries can lead to infertility, and the drop in hormone levels may result in hot flashes and an increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease.
Presently, women with non-functioning ovaries can take hormone replacement therapy (HRT) drugs to make up for the body’s inability to produce ovarian hormones — much like a traditional vitamin supplement. However, many women are hesitant to use HRT drugs because they are known to dramatically increase the risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
Given the risks associated with hormone replacement therapy, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine Emmanuel C. Opara, Ph.D, says the goal of the artificial ovary is to "develop a tissue- or cell-based hormone therapy to deliver sex hormones in a more natural manner than drugs … [The] bioartificial ovary has the potential to secrete hormones in a natural way based on the body's needs, rather than the patient taking a specific dose of drugs each day."
According to a promising report in Biomaterials, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine may be on the verge of making this revolutionary ovarian tissue therapy a reality.
The Wake Forest Baptist team constructed the artificial ovary by extracting ovarian cells from 21-day-old rats, and subsequently encapsulating the cells within a thin, semi-permeable membrane. The membrane functions to facilitate oxygen and nutrient flow, but also isolates the cells in a separate environment thereby preventing the patient from rejecting the ovarian cells. To assess the function of the ‘artificial ovary,’ the membrane-encapsulated cells were exposed to follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and luteinizing hormone (LH) — both naturally occurring hormones known to stimulate ovarian production of hormones. Upon exposure to FSH and LH, the artificial ovaries mimicked the action of natural ovaries and began to secrete the hormones estrogen, progesterone, inhibin, and activin.
Opara is highly optimistic about the efficacy of the artificial ovaries. He went on to note that the in vitro encapsulated ovarian cells “were observed to function in similar fashion to the native ovaries [and] the secretion of inhibin and activin suggests that these structures could potentially function as an artificial ovary by synchronizing with the body's innate control system."
So what do these new developments mean for women?
Researchers caution that it may take years before the artificial ovaries can be used in humans, but preliminary results are promising. If successful, the artificial ovaries can potentially serve as a more natural alternative to hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, or may even be used to replace non-functioning ovaries in women of all ages.
Furthermore, the artificial ovary may assist researchers in recreating eggs in vitro, which could possibly help infertile women to conceive children. With nearly 10% of childbearing-age women in the United States struggling with infertility, the artificial ovary has the potential to transform the lives of millions of women and families.