Ovarian follicles are the "nests" that carry eggs and support them to grow and become viable. The researchers demonstrated that they could dramatically improve the rate at which follicles develop mature eggs by surrounding the follicles with adipose-derived adult stem cells in a 3D scaffold that mimics the environment of the ovary.
Adipose-derived stem cells can be obtained from readily available fat tissue in adults.
The researchers point out that utilizing this approach in women is a ways off, but it could offer hope for many.
"Once a patient is cancer-free and they want biologically related children, we hope we'll be able to take their ovarian follicles, grow them in vitro and obtain healthy eggs for these young, otherwise healthy women," said Ariella Shikanov, U-M associate professor of biomedical engineering.
The described approach increased follicle survival from less than 5 percent to between 42 percent and 86 percent depending on the size of the follicle. The research was recently published in Stem Cell Research & Therapy Journal.
"This is a huge step toward being able to preserve the fertility of women and girls undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for cancer since those treatments are toxic to the follicles," said Claire Tomaszewski, a U-M doctoral student in biomedical engineering and member of the research team.
At this time, a young female leukemia patient's hope for carrying and delivering a biologically related child is freezing ovarian tissue prior to treatment, and hoping technology can eventually make follicle growth and maturation a viable procedure.
And historically, attempts to grow human follicles into eggs in two-dimensional petri dishes have failed.
"A follicle is a three-dimensional structure, which becomes a pancake, not the spherical structure surrounded by supportive cells, when placed on a flat surface in a dish," Shikanov said. "As a result, it loses the contact between the supportive cells and the germs cells and then it fails to grow."