Artificial Ovaries Could Help Women Get Pregnant After Cancer

Artificial ovaries. It sounds sort of like something out of a science fiction novel, but it may be reality for some women in the very near future. Doctors in Denmark have reportedly made an “artificial ovary” from human tissue and eggs, and an artificial ovary could help women conceive after after cancer treatment or other therapies that damage female fertility, according to The Guardian. It’s still in the early stages yet, but the possible procedure sounds very promising.

Danish researchers have engineered a "scaffold" where early-stage cells can develop into functioning ovarian follicles, according to CNN. This breakthrough could be incredible news for patients such as women who have types of cancer, like ovarian cancer and some blood-born cancers such as leukemia, which result in malignant cells in their ovarian tissue.

Women in that position often can't save their ovarian tissue for fertility, since it could contain remaining cancer cells. But now, provided this "scaffold" artificial ovary option actually works, those women could have their fertility restored using their own eggs and donor tissue, according to USA Today.

This new technique is particularly meant for women who are at risk of becoming infertile, like those who receive chemotherapy, the BBC reported. A woman's risk of getting ovarian cancer during her lifetime is about 1 in 78, according to the American Cancer Society, and many of them may choose treatments that could impact their fertility. And that's just ovarian cancer. Clearly, this new technique has the potential to help a lot of people.

The research team in Copenhagen reportedly proved that a lab-made ovary could keep human eggs alive for weeks at a time, according to The Guardian. Susanne Pors, an author of the research and a postdoctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology at the University Hospital of Copenhagen Rigshospitalet, and others at the Rigshospitalet think these artificial ovaries could be a safer option than ovarian-tissue freezing for patients at high risk of having cancers come back.

To make the artificial ovary, the Rigshospitalet researchers used chemicals to strip donated ovarian tissue of its cells, including cancer cells. What's left after that is a bare tissue “scaffold” made mostly of collagen, the protein which makes skin strong, The Guardian reported. They then seeded that "scaffold" with hundreds of human follicles, which hold early-stage eggs. The team was able to implant one of the artificial ovaries holding 20 of those human follicles into a mouse, and a quarter of them survived for at least three weeks. Plus, blood vessels began to grow around the ovary to keep it nourished in the mouse, which is pretty wild.

Pors said of the development, according to USA Today:

We have now done the first important steps towards constructing a cancer-free ovary. We have many more studies to do, but this is a proof-of-concept showing that human eggs can survive on a newly constructed scaffold.

Unfortunately, that is the catch here — the fact that this is just the beginning for this technique. The research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the technique hasn't been tested in humans. But it is an excellent first step in what may be a very exciting leap forward when it comes to restoring fertility in women.

The research was presented Monday at the 34th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona, Spain, according to CNN. Now, researchers will have to turn to next steps to see if the technique can move beyond the mice testing phase and eventually become a reality for humans.

Daniel Brison, the scientific director of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Manchester, told CNN the new research is "a very interesting and novel" strategy for fertility preservation, but that "it is not possible" to determine whether the approach will work until information from the research group is peer-reviewed and published in a scientific journal.

And he wasn't the only one who thinks there's a lot of work to do before these artificial ovaries are a proven alternative for women who may need them. Pors told The Guardian "it will be many years before we can put this into a woman.” She added that it could take anywhere from five to 10 years of additional work before artificial ovaries are even ready for human trials.

But these "artificial ovaries" are still a very cool development, and have the potential to be life-changing for some women. It's definitely encouraging to see such a focus on an issue that impacts so many women, and always inspiring to see strides being made in the medical field to improve women's health.