BY: SHAWNTAE HARRIS
Women have always had a love-hate relationship with their reproduction cycle. The thing that allows women to bring life into the world has also left some with serious health problems. Until today there haven’t really been any clear answers or solutions to miscarriages, tumours or the reason some women cannot conceive.
A chip called Evatar allows researchers to test drugs that could possibly save lives. The chip is roughly the size of a paperback book. But, this small cube mimics the whole reproduction system. Meaning, it includes mini-ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus and cervix.
The tissues resemble the actual reproduction system since tissues were taken from actual women. But, due to health reasons, some of the tissues and ovaries were obtained from mice.
Teresa Woodruff is an expert on biology and gynaecology at Northwestern University. She worked with recovering cancer patients who wanted to get pregnant after chemotherapy and radiation for over a decade. Unfortunately, she never had a reproduction system to practice on. That is why Woodruff and over a dozen colleges created this biochip.
The chip has a 28-day cycle of hormones during which eggs are released. According to researchers, this means that every 14 days an egg was released.
“An avatar is kind of a digital representation of an individual in a virtual environment,” says Woodruff, to NPR. “So when we thought about this synthetic version of the female reproductive tract we thought of the word Evatar.”
Scientists around America took part in the research. Researchers from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois in Chicago, and Draper, based in Cambridge and Massachusetts took two years to create the tissue. This was put into a separate plastic section; a blue liquid made of hormones and nutrients is put inside the plastic cells, which acts as a blood substitute and a communication tube.
Woodruff and her team are also interested in creating a male version. But for the female reproduction system, they hope to personalise each tube. “We think this will radically change the way we study a lot of human systems, not just the female reproductive tract,” said Woodruff.
This can help to figure out solutions on a person to person basis since everybody is unique. They also want to create a fully functional system, meaning, adding a heart and pancreas to see how the hormones react with them.
“This is the first time we’ve been able to model the entire reproductive hormone profile,” says Woodruff to Wired. “You might be able to look at two of these tissues together in culture, but five together for a month is almost unheard of.”
In the past, drugs would often be tested on animals, but since animals and humans are not the same, oftentimes the drugs would have a different reaction with humans. Since this new biochip processes drugs, animals can be spared.
Researchers making human cells into biochips is nothing new. Three years ago, scientists at Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University also created an organ out of a microchip. First, they made a lung that was able to breathe and function like a real lung, then they developed a human gut that mimics the digestive system.
The new biochip is an innovative way to closely study the female reproductive system, and will hopefully pave the way for new breakthroughs in this area.