In an astounding bioengineering feat, researchers produced a fully functioning 3D model of the female reproductive system.
The device is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and uses human and mouse stem cells to replicate the womb, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.
This project's ambition is to ultimately recreate the entire body via organ-on-a-chip technology, in hopes of aiding with experimental drug testing, assessing the effects of various treatments, and studying diseases of specific organs and tissues.
The revolutionary technology — called EVATAR — is the result of collaborative work between several scientists from different universities, who published their concept in the journal Nature Communications.
As they explain in their paper, the researchers' next goal is a more individualized approach, in which a person's stem cells could be used to create a 3D replica of their own organs to facilitate targeted treatments.
According to The Scientist, the team had already started working on a male version of the reproductive system on a chip, ADATAR, which they estimate will be finalized within a year.
Working Artificial Organs On The EVATAR 3D Chip
The EVATAR chip is structured as a series of cubes, each comprising the biological representation of the female reproductive organs: uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, cervix, and vagina.
Inside the cubes, researchers placed collections of living cells, harvested for the most part from human tissue, with the exception of the ovaries, which were taken from mice.
A news release issued by Northwestern University reports the ovaries for the EVATAR technology were developed by Teresa Woodruff of the Woodruff Lab and director of the Women's Health Research Institute at the university's Feinberg School of Medicine.
The uterus was designed by Julie Kim, while the cervix and vagina were created by Spiro Getsios, both of them being Woodruff's colleagues at Feinberg.
The fallopian tubes for the chip were provided by Joanna Burdette, from the Northwestern University. The system includes an additional cube for the liver due to the organ's importance in drug metabolism.
A Complete Menstrual Cycle In A Dish
The six cubes communicate with each other through an installation of minuscule tubes, which infuse the 3D model with hormones and special fluid, imitating natural blood flow.
"In 10 years, this technology, called microfluidics, will be the prevailing technology for biological research," said Woodruff.
By introducing hormones in the system, the scientists were able to perfectly replicate on the chip what goes on in the female reproductive tract down to the 28-day menstrual cycle.
At first, the team added follicle stimulating hormone, followed by luteinizing hormone after a period of 14 days, enabling the miniature ovaries to produce estrogen and progesterone and successfully releasing an egg.
"This is the first time we've been able to model the entire reproductive hormone profile," revealed Woodruff.
Endless Medical Applications
One of EVATAR'S purposes is to analyze the differences in drug metabolism between males and females, leading to the development of individualized treatments, states Woodruff.
She adds that the system will also provide a means for testing new pharmaceuticals and uncovering how these compounds affect the various organs on the chip, revolutionizing the process of drug discovery and research.
Another significant advantage of the 3D replica is the invaluable insight it can offer into hormonally driven diseases of the reproductive organs, such as endometriosis and fibroids, for which Burdette says there is no available treatment other than surgery.
In addition, she explains, the new technology constitutes a tremendous resource for the study of cancer, allowing researchers to investigate cancer cells at a system level, as opposed to the current practice of examining isolated cells.
The medical community highly anticipates the release of the 3D model. Prof. Jan Brosens, from the University of Warwick, told BBC that although EVATAR can't replace IVF, it will surely enable doctors to detect the exact faults in the reproductive system "that cause infertility and early pregnancy loss."