After decades of work, a team of doctors say they've successfully engineered vaginas that have been implanted and grown in women. The vaginas were grown in a lab from the female patients' own cells and later transferred to their bodies, where they formed into normal vaginas. The breakthrough bears some huge implications, too.
It sounds confusing at first, but the process was fairly simple. Anthony Atala from the Wake Forest School of Medicine led the research using a technique developed in the 1990s. The patients were all women born without functioning vaginas due to a rare but severe condition known as Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome. While they all had vulvas, the external part of the female sex organs, they didn't have a vaginal cavity, meaning they couldn't menstruate or have sex. There were also, obviously, psychological effects.
Using a technique first developed on rabbits—where, funnily enough, the first solid organ grown was a penis—Atala's team took samples from the women's vulvas and grew them on a degradable scaffold made of collagen in a lab. Once they'd reached the right level of maturity, the doctors inserted the engineered vagina into a cavity they'd formed in the patients' abdomens. The scaffold was attached to the uterus and a stent was used to hold it in place for the first six weeks. After just six months, the vagina was fully developed. Depending on the patient, Atala waited between four and eight years before publishing his findings to ensure there were no complications. There weren't.
"After the operation they were able to function normally. They had normal levels of desire, arousal, satisfaction and orgasm," Atala told the press. When asked whether the women could give birth, he sounded optimistic. "They haven't tried," he said, "but they can ovulate, so there is no reason to suspect that they cannot."
While this specific procedure stands to improve the lives of many women, the implications of growing an organ inside a patients' body is huge. Gizmodo interviewed Atala a few years ago, and he spoke of a future where all body parts could be grown in a lab and transplanted into a patient. It makes you wonder, if this is what immortality looks like. "I don't know how long it will take, but I do foresee a future when organs will be available off-the-shelf, ready to 'plug in' and replace injured or diseased organs," Atala said at the time. With today's news, we're that much closer to this future. [The Lancet via New Scientist]