Women in their childbearing years who undergo chemotherapy for cancer must often make the difficult choice between treating their cancer and the loss of their fertility as a side effect of powerful cancer-fighting drugs. But according to breakthrough research from scientists at Brown University, there may be new hope for women about to undergo chemotherapy: an artificial ovary, grown in a laboratory using cells from healthy women of childbearing age—and capable of maturing eggs for release into the womb.
Published online September 14, 2010, in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics, researchers believe the new advance may someday mean that women about to undergo chemotherapy could have their immature eggs frozen and later implanted into the artificial ovary if they planned to conceive. To create the ovaries, researchers used theca cells and granulose cells—two types of specialized ovary cells. After the theca cells grew into a honeycomb shape, the granulose cells were inserted into the honeycomb along with human egg cells (oocytes).
As the UK Daily Mail newspaper reports, once eggs were inserted into the artificial ovary, scientists found that the ovary treated the egg cells just as it would naturally in a woman's body. The artificial organ was then able to help the eggs develop into their fully mature stage, the point at which they could be placed into a woman's reproductive tract for fertilization.
What's the connection between cancer and infertility? In their quest to seek and destroy cancer cells in the body, chemotherapy and other potent anti-cancer drugs can also destroy the delicate cells that surround the eggs in the ovaries, significantly upping the risk for impaired egg maturation and ovulation problems.
As far as the future of the artificial ovary and its practical uses, further study is underway. Researchers believe the lab-created ovary may someday be a living laboratory for investigating questions about how healthy ovaries work—and for seeing how problems, such as exposure to toxins or other chemicals, can disrupt egg maturation and fertility.