Below the Belt

Lab-Created Vaginas, Successfully Implanted in Four Women, Function Normally

Four young women born with defective or absent vaginas now have fully functioning parts, thanks to science.

04.12.14 4:00 AM ET

How does your lady-garden grow? In a lab, thanks to amazing new developments in U.S. medicine. Scientists have successfully engineered and implanted vaginas into four women with a rare congenital disorder, all of whom reported normal levels of “desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and painless intercourse” following the surgery.

One of the women involved, who wished to remain anonymous, said of the treatment:  “Truly I feel very fortunate because I have a normal life, completely normal.”

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina, extended the study to four teenage girls suffering from vaginal aplasia (where the organ has developed either defectively or not at all) as a result of Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKHS). The condition affects around 1 in 5,000 women. Scans of each patient’s pelvis were used to create a biodegradable 3D-scaffold, where cells grown from the existing vulva tissue could be moulded into the right shape, and were kept incubated in an environment similar to the human body during the manufacturing process.

Doctor Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest, told the BBC that creating functioning vaginas for women who had been born without them was “very important” and “very rewarding.” This is thought to be the first instance in which a whole organ has been created entirely from scratch—a process he described as “a challenge.” The procedure is currently being tested on more patients at the medical center, with a view to rolling it out on a larger scale in clinical trials in the near future.

The pilot study, published Friday after an eight-year review period with its participants, is yet another exciting leap forward for regenerative science. Last month alone, news that 3D printing had transformed the lives of patients who had suffered severe facial injuries in road accidents or were battling rare skull disorders continued to help the research movement gather both steam and esteem in the medical community.

While no pregnancies have been reported yet, they are biologically possible as a result of the surgery. Not only is this incredible news for the women involved with the study, but it also opens up the possibility of 3D-printing becoming an option for those unable to get pregnant as a result of other health defects. In the years to come, will lab-grown vaginas be a faster route to motherhood than the likes of IVF? Because if all of the functions and sensations are there, and its biological capacity is even better, they could well be. Replacing an (almost) fully operational vagina with one cooked up in a petri dish might seem controversial now, but if the rapidly moving field of bio-engineered body parts is anything to go by, it doesn’t seem like such a long way off.

Even if the women involved with the study do not, for some reason, become pregnant, the fact that they have been granted an all but ordinary life thanks to scientists pumping and dumping some cells from one part of the body to another is nothing short of miraculous. To think that rare birth defects can be rectified before the onset of adulthood is something that can and will change the lives of millions of people all over the world forever, not only physically, but psychologically, too.

The study also highlights the success of growing new organs from a patient’s own cells, which “avoids the danger of tissue mismatching,” explains biochemist Natasha Rickett. “Transplant rejection is the principal fear one has when moving an organ from one body to another, but because in this case they’re your own cells, with your specific markers on, there’s no reason for the body to see them as foreign.”

Being able to cultivate organs in this way is not only important in terms of its success rating but also with regard to how many people it can reach, as the percentage of willing donors is always dramatically lower than the number of those in need. By creating a scientific alternative that doesn’t require an outside party, then, the often soul-destroying search for a donor could be all but eradicated, and the fear of transplant rejection gone for good.

It’s hard not to get overly excited when considering the limitless possibilities 3D-printing has already—and continues to—afford us, particularly as we are only in the elementary stages with procedures of this nature. Every new development, whether it’s printing a replacement pelvis, or creating a new technique for forming blood vessel-like structures, yields an incredible amount of opportunity.

While it’s easy to tar 3D-printing with the been-there-done-that brush (once you’ve seen one printed bone, you’ve seen ‘em all, right?!), it’s hard to think of another area of medicine that will offer as much scope and sheer ability to revolutionize the future of scientific research as this one promises to.