A team of Danish reproductive biologists has developed a new technique for building a tissue scaffold that mimics a human ovary yet contains no cells. Though a good deal more tests are needed, a series of initial experiments suggest that the structure is capable of supporting ovarian follicles as they mature into oocytes, aka egg cells.
The breakthrough, summarized in a presentation by lead researcher Dr Susanne Pors at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona, could pave the way for an approach that restores fertility in female cancer survivors without risk of cancer recurrence.
Because our current anti-cancer standbys – chemotherapy and radiotherapy – often damage the stash of follicles present in each woman’s ovaries since birth, those who want to conceive after treatment have two options: have a handful of these cell clusters harvested beforehand then turn to IVF when they reach remission, or have the entire ovary harvested then re-implanted. However, due to the possibility that cancerous cells have infiltrated the ovarian tissue, many doctors are leery about signing off on the latter. And, as many couples have experienced, IVF is expensive, exhausting, and not always successful.
Hoping to provide a better option, Dr Pors and her colleagues started tinkering with ways to bioengineer a type of ovarian tissue that is guaranteed to be free of cancerous cells but still maintains the organ’s functionality. Their resulting process begins by harvesting ovarian tissue (the follicles are also taken and frozen) and treating it with a chemical bath until all that remains is the supportive matrix of proteins and collagen. Next, early stage follicles are thawed and reintroduced into the scaffold in the lab.