You heard it here first folks, unless you read the same Nature Communications article as me, in which case you heard it there first. Either way: 3D printed organs are a reality! For mice right now, but scale-wise it’s not that far from humans. This first foray into functioning 3D printed replacements involves a number of unique situations though, so don’t go ruining your liver just yet. 

Researchers Printed and Implanted Functional Ovaries in Mice

A group of researchers from Northwestern used a 3D printer to build an ovary-like shell with specific geometry that would allow ovarian follicles to survive and (they hoped) blood vessels to grow and nourish those follicles. They learned through trial and error that some geometries work better than others, but the most surprising thing they learned was that angiogenesis (the in-growth of blood vessels) could be accomplished without the addition of synthetic or otherwise derived angiogenic growth factors. Here’s how the process went down:

  1. A very specific type of gelatin (scientifically speaking, it was not too runny, not too solid, but juuust right) was printed in several variations of three dimensional ovary shapes approximately 2 cm x 5 cm x 0.5 cm (for us non metric people, that’s approximately 0.8 inches x 2 inches x just shy of 1/4 inch).
  2. Ovaries were removed from mice, and follicles were isolated from those ovaries.
  3. Follicles were added to the 3D printed ovary structures.
  4. Follicle containing ovary structures were incubated in a regular cell culture incubator for 4 days.
  5. Healthy follicle containing ovary structures were implanted into mice whose ovaries had been previously removed.
  6. Mice were allowed to do mice things.
  7. Boom! Baby mice were born to a mom who used to have no ovaries, confirming that the 3D printed ovary structures did function once implanted.

The 3D Printed Ovaries Grew Blood Vessels

When these space aged synthetic ovaries were removed for characterization, to the admitted surprise of the researchers, functioning blood vessels were found. That’s like unearthing the buried city of Atlantis and finding a fully functioning fresh water and sewage system just pumping away. It may actually be more consequential than that since scientists have admitted for decades that the biggest obstacle in the effort to create fully synthetic replacement organs is the inability to create functioning vasculature. Just listen to this guy who wants to print synthetic skin, or these guys who are on the cutting edge of biologically integrated 3D printing – blood vessels are a huge problem! And yet, this team from Northwestern seems to have successfully overcome that obstacle.

Synthetic Ovary Technology Could Help Thousands

When you read about a technology like synthetic ovary replacement, you may not immediately appreciate the far-reaching impact it could have. Ovaries are necessary for progression through puberty and endocrine function, which impacts many facets of health including fertility and bone density. Researchers hope that a technology like this would allow ovarian cancer patients, especially those who are pre-adolescent, the opportunity to live completely normal lives even after complete ovary removal. And when the time comes, they would have reproductive abilities conveyed by their own follicles, minus the cancer that caused them to be removed in the first place. And that’s just the impact on this exact organ replacement, completely ignoring the way in which this research will affect the synthetic replacement of other types of organs.

Scientists Hope Human Trials Will Happen Within Five Years

Though they don’t believe the first generation of human implants will restore fertility, these researchers are hoping to see a hormone producing implant used in humans in the next five years. They still have a lot of work to do, especially since interventions in rodent models often prove simpler and more effective than in people. That being said, this project already has one very significant advantage: blood vessels. So based upon those nearly miraculous little vascular structures, I’m counting on blogging about this a lot in the coming years, and I’m looking forward to the impact this will have on other synthetic organ projects.

Now I know you’re hoping I’ll get back around to whether or not you can start mixing your pinot grigio with Tylenol, and I hate to disappoint, but brace for disappointment: we’re not there yet. So don’t get wild and start ignoring the drug interaction warnings on your prescription bottles just yet, and stay tuned, because we’ll definitely be among those nerdy people who cover it first when that day finally comes!

If you want to read more about this awesome synthetic ovaries, read the *open access* [bless them!] article here!

Have questions about regenerative medicine from this blog or elsewhere on the web? Let us know in the comments, and we’ll cover it in an upcoming post!

Side note: I say “we” a lot when I blog. That’s not the royal we, although that would be a very “Keep Austin Weird” type affectation. When I reference “we” or “us,” I’m speaking of the collective Celling team, with whom I have worked for so long that I feel completely free to speak for all of us at any given time, especially when predicting nerdy behavior.

See y’all next week!