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Artificial Ovary ‘Breakthrough’ Carries Practical Limitations

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In Time magazine’s Top 10 Medical Breakthroughs of 2010, the field of infertility and assisted reproduction received a good deal of representation. Out of the 10 medical breakthroughs listed, two were infertility advances, including a procedure that may predict in vitro fertilization (IVF) success and the creation of an artificial ovary that may one day nurture human eggs out of the body. However, practical use of the artificial ovary is currently limited.

A team of researchers at Brown University created the artificial ovary by coaxing three primary ovary cells, which were donated by patients, into a 3-D structure resembling an ovary. With an artificial ovary, immature eggs can be retrieved and then matured outside of the body. According to the researchers, this may one day benefit women going through IVF.

How the Artificial Ovary May Benefit IVF in the Future

Currently, women’s ovaries must be stimulated by daily injections to produce multiple eggs for the IVF procedure. But the artificial ovary may allow eggs to be matured outside the body, so women would not have to go through the injections and hormones of ovarian stimulation. Additionally, immature eggs may be better able to withstand freezing than mature eggs, which can give women going through IVF a greater likelihood of becoming pregnant.

Other possible benefits of the artificial ovary may also be fertility preservation for women, and a greater understanding of ovarian function for fertility doctors and researchers.

Limitations of the Artificial Ovary

While the creation of the artificial ovary may provide hope for patients struggling with infertility, it is important to recognize that the research is still in very early stages.

“It seems to me this is very preliminary,” says Dr. Maria Bustillo, a board certified fertility doctor (reproductive endocriniologist) at the South Florida Institute for Reproductive Medicine.

According to Bustillo, who is widely recognized as a pioneer in ultrasound guided egg retrieval and egg donation IVF procedures, the concept of the artificial ovary research is interesting, but she does not see many near-future implications in regards to infertility and IVF for the technology.

“At the moment, the remote possibility may be that ovaries could be made from ovarian cells from one person and then put into others who need them,” she says.

However, Dr. Bustillo also acknowledges that the practical application of this may be limited. “This seems to be a significant amount of work, as the major issue now is obtaining oocytes, which we can do from egg donors, or by preserving either the mature and maybe the immature oocytes for women prior to undergoing cancer treatment or ovarian removal that will leave them menopausal,” she says.

The small size of the research study also may pose a potential limitation for future advances.

“The only potential for this technology might be if it would do a better job than we can do in vitro now of maturing immature eggs,” she says. “But with data on three oocytes given, it is hard to conclude that this is the future in terms of in vitro maturation.”