Scientists Use Women's Own Cells to Create Lab-Grown Vaginas

Laboratory-grown vaginas
The procedure offers hope to women with congenital conditions in which the vagina and uterus are underdeveloped Francois Lenoir/Reuters

For the first time, researchers have successfully implanted laboratory-grown vaginas in human patients—potentially helping women avoid drawbacks from other regenerative procedures, scientists announced in a paper published today.

A research team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine, led by Dr. Anthony Atala, said in Lancet that four recipients of lab-grown reproductive organs underwent surgery between June 2005 and October 2008—and that the organs are functioning normally after eight years. The new organs are created by culturing these women's own cells into tissues and eventually reshaping the tissues into a vagina-like structure.

An underdeveloped or absent vagina can result from any number of health problems, ranging from congenital syndromes like Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauster (MRKH) to cancers and injuries. Though there are other methods of reconstructing vaginas for women with these problems, those procedures can have big drawbacks.

The first-line method is dilation—gradually expanding an undeveloped opening—works 90 percent of the time. The 10 percent of women for whom it's not successful can seek treatment via several surgical procedures, Dr. Marc Laufer, chief of the Division of Gynecology at Boston Children's Hospital, tells Newsweek.

These procedures use the women's tissues, such as skin from their buttocks or intestinal tracts, to reconstruct vaginal organs. But the result isn't always ideal—the transplanted skin doesn't act like a normal vagina would.

Atala has come up with a better method. His team creates the vaginal organs using muscle and epithelial cells ("the cells that line the body's cavities," they explain) taken from the patient's external genitals. The researchers culture these cells—a biopsy sample less than half the size of a postage stamp—so that more and more would grow. After about four weeks, researchers place them "on a biodegradable material that was hand-sewn into a vagina-like shape" so they grow into a form a bit like a champagne glass, Atala says.

Some seven days later, surgeons suture this structure, which they call a "scaffold," to patients' existing internal reproductive organs. After implantation, nerves and blood vessels form, and the cells on the scaffold "expand and form tissue." While the body begins to absorb the biodegradable scaffold, "the cells lay down materials to form a permanent support structure—gradually replacing the engineered scaffold with a new organ."

The four patients, who were not immediately available for comment, have reported positive results. In a questionnaire on female sexual function, the women said they had "normal sexual function after the treatment, including desire and pain-free intercourse."

The girls in the study were born with MRKH, a congenital condition "in which the vagina and uterus are underdeveloped or absent," according to the National Institutes of Health. MRKH is fairly rare, affecting approximately 1 out of every 4,500 newborn girls.

In a conference call with reporters, Atala said the method might work for conditions other than MRKH, such as vaginal cancer or injury. The research team focused only on MRKH patients because that allowed for a controlled experimental group, he said.

There are limits to this research. The team admits that the study, while exciting, is quite small in scale and that the technique needs to be performed more "to compare it with established surgical procedures."

This is not the first time Atala's team has created organs in labs with similar methods. Starting in 1998, an Atala-led team created replacement bladders and implanted them in nine children, making the team "the first in the world to implant laboratory-grown organs in humans." The team has also implanted lab-made urethras into young boys. In February, scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch created lab-grown lungs, according to reports. In addition, scientists in England are working on making noses, tear ducts and blood cells in a lab, The Associated Press reports.

Some MRKH-patient advocates were enthused about the news.

"It's a start creating something that's less invasive," Amy C. Lossie, president and CEO of the Beautiful You MRKH Foundation, tells Newsweek. "Anything that's going to heal quicker and result in fewer complications is a good step forward."