Is it really possible to simplify the entire female menstrual cycle to a Petri dish in the lab? After all, the complexities of this process can still escape the scientists studying it and women who endure it every month. But a team from Northwestern University says they’ve achieved this milestone.
And while it certainly doesn’t physically resemble the biological version, it’s considered the first equivalent of the female reproductive system in a dish. The mini organ can mimic the female menstrual cycle, offering biologists an unprecedented way to study female health and reproductive concerns.
The palm-sized device contains 3D cube models of the organs making up the female reproductive system. This includes the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, and vagina. Scientists seeded each cube with the appropriate stem cells from either humans or mice. And the cubes are connected by small channels, which function like blood in the human circulatory system.
Because the artificial organs are intricately connected, any secretion of hormones gets carried to the other organs. This design successfully mimicked the various phases of the menstrual cycle. So far, the system is programmed around a 28-day cycle, but this may be adjustable later on.
"We think we can go longer, but what we're reporting is 28 days," said Teresa Woodruff, director of the Women's Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author. "What we're mimicking here is the menstrual cycle itself."
The device is dubbed “EVATAR,” after the female form of an “avatar.” "Avatars are representations of actual people," said Woodruff. "Eve is kind of the mother of all humans; EVATAR is kind of the mother of all microhumans."
But how do scientists know if EVATAR can accurately mimic a woman’s monthly cycle? As it turns out, the scientists can measure levels of biomarkers that correlate with cycle changes, such as ovulation and shedding of the uterine lining. In fact, these built-in controls were among the reasons why a female reproductive system was built first instead of a male reproductive system, which lacks the same markers.
The team has big expectations for EVATAR in many fields of women’s health.
"The systems are tremendous for the study of cancer, which often is studied as isolated cells rather than system-wide cells," said Joanne Burdette, one of the co-author of the study. "This is going to change the way we study cancer." Other areas of women’s health that may benefit from EVATAR include conditions like fibroids, endometriosis, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Moreover, birth control and fertility studies should also find significant use in EVATAR.