Lab-made ovaries may be the end of menopause.
Researchers at Wake Forest University's Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center are testing an artificially created ovarian tissue in rats with the ability to release estrogen and progesterone.
These artificial ovaries may mean a new way to treat or even prevent menopause in women.
Menopause is the natural decline in a woman's reproductive hormones, causing an end to menstruation and the ability to have children.
Menopause can last between 10 months and four years, but women are not said to be in menopause until they have stopped menstruating for 12 straight months.
"For most women, the onset of menopause begins in their late 40s or early 50s, but some individuals who undergo a hysterectomy or have gone through cancer treatment start menopause early," said Dr. Mona Alqulali, F.A.C.O.G, Ph.D.
Alqulali is an OB-GYN in Clinton, Iowa.
The side effects of menopause include hot flashes, insomnia, weight gain and changes in hair and skin quality.
Menopause is also responsible for the development of osteoporosis, a condition in which the bones become weak and brittle.
Menopause has other consequences for women; researchers have linked the changes in hormones brought on by the condition to an increased risk of developing breast cancer and diabetes.
During and after menopause, women also have an increased risk of cardiac health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart attack.
"There is an increase in heart attack among women 10 years after menopause ends," Alqulali said.
Conventional treatment for menopause is hormone replacement therapy using synthetic-made estrogen and progesterone.
Using HRT for long periods increases the risk of developing breast and other cancers, and not all women, including those who have a history of breast or reproductive cancers, can tolerate the treatment.
"Synthetic hormone treatment is beneficial for some women, but not all women are good candidates for the treatment and could benefit from natural hormone replacement therapy," Alqulali said.
To avoid the consequences and risks of synthetic HRT, some women turn to natural methods and take supplements containing plant estrogens. These alternative treatments also have their risks.
"Some supplements such as licorice root have been found to interfere with medications," Alqulali said.
The Wake Forest researchers hope that their artificial ovary could be an alternative to hormone replacement therapy.
During their research, the study authors tested engineered pieces of tissue known as organoids in female rats. These proved to be more effective than HRT in menopausal rats. Rats treated with the organoids showed improvements in bone health and did not gain weight compared to rats treated with hormones.
Researchers also found that organoids contributed to maintaining healthy tissue in the uterus.
To develop the tissue used in their rat experiment, the researchers combined two types of cells collected from rats who had their ovaries removed: granulosa cells that form into ovaries and theca cells that contribute to fertility.
The cells were then cultured to grow into a three-dimensional organoid and implanted into menopausal rats. Researchers observed that the organoids began to secrete natural estrogen and other hormones in less than a week.
Although the research shows promise, human clinical trials of artificial ovaries are a long way off.
One reason for the delay is the researchers have not yet identified a reliable source that would have enough of the ovarian cells to culture into organoids needed for clinic trials.
Other concerns over the potential of the project leave researchers wondering if the artificial ovaries are a double-edged sword: Consequences of reversing menopause may mean prolonged menstruation and potential extended fertility.
MIT Technology News. Will Artificial Ovaries Mean No More Menopause? 5 December 2017.