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March 30, 2017
The 28-day menstruation cycle has been replicated in a lab for the first time, and it could change how conditions like endometriosis, cancer, and infertility are treated.
Researchers used reproductive cells obtained from women, along with mouse ovarian cells, to keep the system working for an entire month. The study was published in Nature Communications.
The artificial reproductive system consists of blocks which represent different organs—ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina, and liver. Using organ-on-a-chip technology, the block are connected by small hoses which mimic circulation and pump a specially formulated, blood-like fluid throughout the various “organs.”
The system produced a full, 28-day menstrual cycle, simulating hormonal fluctuations during ovulation and the early stages of pregnancy. Replicating a process as complex as menstruation implies that the artificial system and its organs are all functioning properly.
In addition to understanding various conditions, it could also help understand the causes of recurrent miscarriages and how to maintain successful pregnancies. Today, researchers are most interested in using the menstruation-on-a-chip to develop individualized treatments for women and to analyze how females might metabolize drugs differently than men. The system allows researchers to study drugs in the context of hormone patterns. Future developments could help scientists develop new methods of contraception or treatments for fibroids.
Here’s Megan Molteni, reporting for Wired:
For obvious ethical reasons, pregnant women aren’t allowed to participate in studies of new drugs, and pharmaceutical companies haven’t made a huge effort to test out new candidates in cells or animals of both sexes. So there’s a lot scientists don’t know about how a woman’s body, especially her endocrine system, interacts with drugs. That might help explain why there are still no good treatments for common ailments like endometriosis, fibroids, and cervical, uterine, and ovarian cancers, which together affect as much as 15 percent of American women.
Though researchers have previously experimented with cells grown in a dish, the results are not always reliable. These cells lack the chemical interaction and blood flow found in natural tissue. By studying cells in an environment that closely resembles the human body, researchers are better equipped to understand how the cells will react to various situations.
The functions of the human body are often interlinked, and researchers say one limitation to the model could be the lack of factors such as the immune system that could drastically affect reproductive health. Researchers hope to someday create an entire “body on a chip” in order to accurately capture the complexity of the human physiology.