Human organs engineered in a lab could move from science fiction to fact soon.
Researchers are investigating these organs as ways to treat a variety of diseases and conditions, including menopause.
A new study examined the possibility of developing synthetic ovaries to treat symptoms associated with menopause and postmenopause.
After ovaries stop functioning, the diminishment of key hormones put women at increased risk for heart disease and osteoporosis.
Additionally, women face a host of symptoms that can be uncomfortable, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
While hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can mitigate many of these symptoms, research released in the early 2000s found that HRT, given via patch or pills, could significantly increase the risk of certain cancers, heart disease, and stroke.
As a result of this research, HRT has become less common and more controversial in recent years.
Many women receive no HRT after reaching menopause, or are put on much smaller doses of hormones.
Due to these risks, doctors and researchers have been looking for newer, safer options to provide women with replacement hormones.
A look at synthetic ovaries
One possibility could be implanting synthetic ovaries.
These engineered organs better “mimic” real ovaries and provide the hormones at lower doses.
A woman’s menopause symptoms can then be diminished without increasing the risk of cancer and heart disease.
Researchers from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine were able to create “biosynthetic” ovaries to implant in rats to see if they could mitigate some menopause symptoms.
They isolated two cells contained in the ovary called the theca and the granulosa. Then, they managed to encapsulate them into a thin engineered membrane and implant them into the rats, according to their study published earlier this month in Nature Communications.
The ovary did not make eggs that would result in the rats becoming fertile.
“The treatment is designed to secrete hormones in a natural way based on the body’s needs, rather than the patient taking a specific dose of drugs each day,” Emmanuel C. Opara, PhD, senior author and professor of regenerative medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center said in a statement.
Opara and his co-authors found that the rats with the engineered ovaries appeared to have better bone mineral density than the rats that received the equivalent of low hormone therapy replacement.
It was also about equal to the rats that had high doses of HRT.
This finding was notable since the amount of hormones released in these rats was far lower than in both the high-level and low-level HRT rats.
The rats with the synthetic ovaries also had less weight gain and their uteruses were not as large as the rats that had both low and high doses of HRT.
“This study highlights the potential utility of cell-based hormone therapy for the treatment of conditions associated with the loss of ovarian function,” said Opara.
Research could open new avenues
The research is still in the early stages.
It will take more time and research before a long-term synthetic ovary could be considered a treatment option for postmenopausal women.
But this study does provide a new avenue of research, which is key to finding better ways to help women.
Dr. Avner Hershlag, chief of Northwell Health Fertility in New York, called the study “absolutely transformational.”
He said that even though this research is in the early stages, patients have been left without many choices of treatment if they don’t pursue HRT.
“That has really caused a crisis that is not much discussed,” he said. “It is a major problem for women. They don’t have a replacement. They don’t have anything else.”
He pointed out that non-HRT treatments are less effective at keeping bones healthy for postmenopausal women.
“You can give her calcium, you can give her magnesium…You can give her weight-bearing exercises,” he said. “They are not as good as estrogen.”
Hershlag said the possibility of synthetic ovaries could potentially mean a long-term treatment for menopause symptoms while not increasing the risk of other conditions like heart disease.
Dr. Tanmoy Mukherjee, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine and co-director of Reproductive Medicine Associates of New York, said this research was “definitely exciting.”
“Experts certainly have been waiting for some form of hormone replacement therapy that is safe, that’s effective,” he told Healthline.
The right hormones are “important for bone health, cardiac health, cognitive function, there are multiple effects of estrogen.”
While Mukherjee said he was excited about the findings, he also said there are many questions that need answering before the synthetic ovaries could be considered as an experimental treatment for women.
“This is what research is all about, I think it’s exciting but I think these are the questions that have to be addressed before it can be widely utilized,” he said.
He questioned how long the device would work and whether it would be safer than the current low-dose HRT.
“It’s hard enough to remind people to take a pill every day, let alone come in for an implantable form of hormone therapy,” he said.
He called the surgical implantation a “big stumbling block.”
Additionally, he pointed out that the complex relationships between hormones, heart health, and other bodily systems means that this treatment could lead to other unknown health risks.
“Are we going to see, no matter what we do, an increase in breast cancer?” he said. “Aging is a complicated process.”