July 2 (UPI) -- Danish doctors have developed an "artificial ovary" from human tissue and eggs that could help women have children after chemotherapy and other medical treatments that can damage their fertility.
The team in Copenhagen showed that a lab-made ovary could keep human eggs alive for weeks at a time, which is a method that could eventually be used to help women have families after harsh treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy for cancer.
The researchers engineered a scaffold onto which early-stage cells can develop functional ovarian follicles, the small fluid-filled sacs that contain a woman's eggs. The artificial ovary would consist of the scaffold, which would come from the woman's own tissue or from donated tissue, combined with her own follicles.
Implanted artificial ovaries could also help women with other conditions that require harsh therapies, such as multiple sclerosis and the blood disorder beta thalassaemia. It can even work for women who go through menopause early.
It'll be five to 10 years before artificial ovaries are ready for human trials, said lead researcher Susan Pors. She's a postdoctoral fellow in the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology at the University Hospital of Copenhagen Rigshospitalet. The team presented the findings Monday at the 34th Annual Meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona, Spain.
Artificial ovaries could be a safer alternative to the current procedure for preserving fertility after harsh medical treatments. Women who now face a cancer diagnoses can have ovarian tissue removed and frozen before the treatments. Then, when they have the all-clear, the tissue is put back in and the women can have babies naturally.
But certain cancers, such as ovarian or leukemia, can invade the ovarian tissue itself and then be reintroduced into the woman's body. So doctors usually don't offer this option to high-risk patients.
The team tested the artificial ovary by implanting one holding 20 human follicles into a mouse, and found that a quarter of them survived for at least three weeks. During that time, blood vessels began to grow around the ovary to keep it nourished while in the mouse.
"This is the first proof that we can actually support these egg cells," Pors told the Guardian. "It's an important step along the road."