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‘Artificial ovary’ allows human eggs to be matured outside the body

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September 14, 2010

An engineered honeycomb of cultured theca cells (top row) envelopes spheres of granulosa c...

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 (Image: Carson Lab / Brown University)

We recently looked at a prototype implantable artificial kidney and now, in a move that could yield infertility treatments for cancer patients and provide a powerful new means for conducting fertility research, researchers have built an artificial human ovary that can grow oocytes into mature human eggs in the laboratory. The ovary not only provides a living laboratory for investigating fundamental questions about how healthy ovaries work, but also can act as a testbed for seeing how problems, such as exposure to toxins or other chemicals, can disrupt egg maturation and health. It could also allow immature eggs, salvaged and frozen from women facing cancer treatment, to be matured outside the patient in the artificial ovary.

To create the ovary, the researchers at Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital formed honeycombs of theca cells, one of two key types of cells 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. In experiments the structure was able to nurture eggs from the “early antral follicle” stage to mature human eggs.

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, said her goal was never to invent an artificial organ, per se, but merely create a research environment in which she could study how theca and granulose cells and oocytes interact. She then heard of the so-called “3D Petri dishes” developed by Jeffrey Morgan that are made of a moldable agarose gel that provides a nurturing template to encourage cells to assemble into specific shapes. The two then teamed up to create the organ, resulting in the first fully functioning tissue to be made using Morgan’s method.

The paper detailing the development of the artificial ovary appears in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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10 Comments

More playing God outside the womb and not just letting things happen as God intended to happen IN THE WOMB! Now even the womb isn't the safest place for human life!

Facebook User
14th September, 2010 @ 10:15 pm PDT

Though I'm sure the intentions (helping infertile couples) are good, we still merely have to *wait* to see someone abuse this technology in order to #$@% with what we might call "the human condition" and create perfect slaves, warriors and whatnot. As such, I tend to agree with you, Paul: it's scary!

Still, "progress" will be made, no matter what. Curiosity, after all, is also part of "the human condition".

BoilingOil
15th September, 2010 @ 06:24 am PDT

Whoa whoa whoa, slow down guys. This is an artificial ovary, it allows for egg cells to mature into a form capable of reproduction, it does not create super soldiers.

Paul, the ovaries are not in the womb, you need some anatomy lessons; I'm sure God agrees. =) To make this absolutely clear to you guys, they are using pre-existing egg cells from mothers and developing them into maturity in an artificial ovary made using the mother's cells, okay? Drop the God-talk and the constant "human condition"-rambling and comprehend what you have just read. Please.

Pantheon
15th September, 2010 @ 10:50 am PDT

Shades of "The Matrix". When will someone start growing super soldiers without any moral conscience whatever?

Probably after we have given thousands of barren women the opportunity to have children. Progress marches on.

csbrudy
15th September, 2010 @ 11:22 am PDT

@Pantheon: it does not create super soldiers YET, but this is the first step towards a future in which such things MAY be possible. Now it is an artificial ovary, next time it's an artificial whomb, then it's a genetically enhanced egg, a sperm cell, a fertilized egg... Sure as hell this is the first step, whether we want to see it or not.

At which point will researchers say "we shouldn't go any further" ?? So far, they've never done that! Researchers never slow down: they go on to the bitter end!! Progress, after all, knows no boundaries and no price. Progress MUST be made. But it keeps scaring the living #$%^ out of me.

BoilingOil
15th September, 2010 @ 02:14 pm PDT

Yes, God intended for random women everywhere to get ovarian cancer and become barren. Derp derp derp... 

@Pantheon... Well said.

GeoMoon5
15th September, 2010 @ 03:14 pm PDT

@Geomoon5: Of course that's not what I meant either. Those women deserve help, a cure, whatever we can give them. And for that I think it's good that this kind of research is done. But every invention CAN be used for good as well as for bad, and at some point one should ask the question whether we're responsible enough to use such power wisely.

I'm not saying we shouldn't do any more research either, anyway. As I said before: it's in our nature to want to know stuff. So I recognize we shouldn't deny ourselves the knowledge that we can gain. All the same, it's still scary.

BoilingOil
15th September, 2010 @ 09:28 pm PDT

@BoilingOil: The snide comment I made was not directed at you. I guess the unintentional delay of my post gave it a more shotgun delivery. Sorry about that. I was trying to help point out the validity of the research, but I see it was in a perhaps crass way. I'll make a point to use more tact in the future.

The research seems scary to me as well, but also exciting and envoking of hope for future generations.

GeoMoon5
15th September, 2010 @ 11:22 pm PDT

@Geomoon5: Thanks for clarifying that! Point taken, no harm done ;)

I *could* have answered that God intended for lots of innocent people to become ill because of toxic and/or radioactive waste that we dump everywhere. But in fact, I think that's all *our* doing, not God's. *He* didn't put that stuff there, *we* did! And that's exactly why I think we're not responsible enough.

But let me also point out that I'm fascinated by the mere fact that these things are even possible. There's so much to learn about evolution and genetics and simply how our bodies and minds work... I'm a scientist at heart myself, but I still feel we should think more about the implications of what we invent.

BoilingOil
16th September, 2010 @ 06:05 am PDT

Sort of arrogant to presume that such an internationally renowned physician as Dr. Carson doesn't consider ethics, isn't it? As someone who was present at weekly team meetings with Dr. Carson and her colleagues for many years, I assure you that ethical considerations and potential for abuse were openly discussed and carefully considered in this type of research. It is merely a new process for maturing eggs of women who aren't able to do it for themselves, not a complete technology for monsters among us to grow new prototypes. There are other assisted reproductive technologies that have been standard for years that are more adaptable for that, such as IVF. However, IVF is complicated, delicately balanced, and requires expensive equipment and highly educated, experienced, and dedicated personnel to run a successful program, and I hardly think we could have created supermen without someone finding out and intervening. So please relax and let us help those heartbroken couples who desperately want children.

Suzi Lindsay
10th July, 2013 @ 08:50 pm PDT
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