Artificial Ovary May Help Infertility, Fertility Research

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The first artificial ovary has been developed by researchers at Brown University and Women’s & Infants Hospital. This discovery could mean new opportunities for some women who are dealing with infertility, as well as open up new avenues for fertility research.

Infertility and Fertility
Approximately 7.3 million women ages 15 to 44 have an impaired ability to get pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 2.1 million married women in that age group experience infertility. Problems with infertility and questions about fertility in general are topics of much research and are emotionally charged issues, as many couples go to great lengths and expense to try to get pregnant.

One area of interest is women of childbearing age who have cancer and who need chemotherapy and/or radiation treatment, which can seriously damage the ovaries. These women often face infertility, although previous research published in Human Reproduction Update has shown it is possible to stimulate a woman’s ovaries to produce eggs for harvesting during the final phase of the menstrual cycle. This allows women a chance to restore their fertility after cancer treatment.

Artificial Ovary at Work

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The new artificial ovary, which has already been used to mature human eggs, will allow scientists to perform a variety of experiments and research regarding infertility and fertility. Senior author of the study, 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, notes that the ovary provides a living lab where investigators can learn how ovaries function, the impact of environmental toxins, and other issues.

For women with cancer who face infertility because of chemotherapy and radiation, the artificial ovary could be especially helpful, according to Stephan Krotz, the study’s lead author and a Houston fertility physician. Women who need cancer treatment could have their immature eggs harvested and frozen, and then allow them to mature in the artificial ovary.

The artificial ovary was constructed using donated theca and granulosa cells (the two main types of cells in the ovary) and implanted with human egg cells (oocytes). Although the authors were unsure the structure would function like an ovary, the eggs did mature, representing “the first success in using 3-D tissue engineering principles for in vitro oocyte maturation.”

The introduction of an artificial ovary that appears to be fully functional presents many new opportunities for fertility and infertility research. Carson and her colleagues are now utilizing the artificial ovary in studies that will hopefully bring many promising results in the field of reproductive medicine.
SOURCES:

Blumenfeld Z, von Wolff M. Human Reproduction Update 2008 Nov-Dec; 14(6): 543-52
Krotz SP et al. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics 2010; DOI: 10.1007/s10815-010-9468-6

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