Here’s the title most commonly seen for this story: Scientists invent first artificial ovary.
It’s actually true. Researchers at Brown University (Rhode Island, USA) and Woman’s and Infants Hospital (Providence, Rhode Island, USA) have made something rather startling. They have created a three-dimensional tissue structure composed of the three main types of cells found in women’s ovaries.
That doesn’t sound all that startling, does it? It shouldn’t, because the news is not about replacing women’s ovaries with an artificial version. This is also not about artificial reproduction. At this point, artificial reproduction is still a concept, an idea most appropriate for science fiction. The science involved with the artificial ovary is a long, long way from a complete artificial reproduction system. It’s so far away, in fact, that it would almost be a misrepresentation to call the artificial ovary a first step. Almost.
What the researchers have described in a Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics article [In vitro maturation of oocytes via the pre-fabricated self-assembled artificial human ovary ] starts with a recent invention (2009): A 3-D Petri dish. At least that’s what they call it, to distinguish what it can do from the normal everyday Petri dish cell culture. The invention of Jeffery Morgan (also of Brown University and co-author of the paper), the 3-D Petri Dish can be molded into different shapes. It’s made of agarose gel, most commonly used in the separation of proteins in DNA, but in this case it provides a hospitable environment for living cells. Because it can be shaped, the gel is used to provide a template (or scaffold) where the cells can self-organize into something similar to what they might do in living tissue.
In this case, the researchers used the gel to form honeycombs of theca cells, which in the human female ovary provide the sheath around the ovarian follicle (where the eggs are produced). Once the honeycombs are formed, the interior of each honeycomb space was filled with granulose cells, the cell of the ovarian follicle that contains the egg. Into this matrix, an oocyte (egg) was placed.
The question was: Would this artificial configuration of gel form and natural cells produce mature eggs? The answer, after numerous variations, was yes.
According to the lead scientist, Sandra Carlson, professor of obstetrics and gynecology:
…her goal was never to invent an artificial organ, per se, but merely to create a research environment in which she could study how theca and granulosa cells and oocytes interact. When she learned of Morgan’s 3-D Petri dishes, they began to collaborate on creating an organ. Morgan said this is the first fully functional tissue to be made using the method.
[Source: Brown University]
So the first artificial ovary is a test bed. It should provide a means for observing the interaction of the various ovary cells, their chemical interplay, and molecular activity. This is obviously something that would be impermissible with ovaries in living women. Likewise the artificial ovary could be used to induce and observe a variety of un-natural conditions (both chemical and genetic).
Put another way, the 3-D Petri dish and the techniques for creating an artificial ovary are a new scientific tool. Tools like this make important discoveries possible.
Many years from now, who knows what fundamental insights into reproductive biology might result? However, in itself, this is not where an implantable synthetic ovary starts. It does show that using (mostly) natural components, a working simulation can be made. That’s an inspiration for finding practical applications, such as a method for temporarily storing or maturing eggs from women with medical problems.