Scientists grow viable vaginas from girls' own cells

Thu Apr 10, 2014 6:37pm EDT
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By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Four young women born with abnormal or missing vaginas were implanted with lab-grown versions made from their own cells, the latest success in creating replacement organs that have so far included tracheas, bladders and urethras.

Follow-up tests show the new vaginas are indistinguishable from the women's own tissue and have grown in size as the young women, who got the implants as teens, matured.

All four of the women are now sexually active and report normal vaginal function. Two of the four, who were born with a working uterus but no vagina, now menstruate normally.

It is not yet clear whether these women can bear children, but because they are menstruating, it suggests their ovaries are working, so it may be possible, said Dr Anthony Atala, director of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina.

The feat, which Atala and colleagues in Mexico describe in the journal the Lancet, is the latest demonstration from the growing field of regenerative medicine, a discipline in which doctors take advantage of the body's power to regrow and replace cells.

In prior studies, Atala's team has used the approach to make replacement bladders and urine tubes or urethras in young boys.

Atala said the pilot study is the first to show that vaginal organs custom-built in the lab using patients' own cells can be successfully used in humans, offering a new option for women who need reconstructive surgeries.

All four of the women in the study were born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome, a rare genetic condition in which the vagina and uterus are underdeveloped or absent. Conventional treatment generally involves the use of grafts made from intestinal tissue or from skin, but both tissues have drawbacks, says Atala, a pediatric urologic surgeon at Wake Forest.   Continued...

Yuanyuan Zhang, M.D., Ph.D, assistant professor at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, demonstrates the process to engineer a vaginal organ in this undated handout photo from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine. REUTERS/Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine/Handout via Reuters