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A tiny reproductive system in a dish could help us understand women’s health

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The cells can live for 28 days

EVATAR is a female reproductive tract that fits in the palm of one’s hand. Each divided compartment within the cube contains a 3D model of a different part of the reproductive tract, such as the ovaries, fallopian tubes, uterus, cervix, vagina, and liver. The blue fluid pumps through each compartment and performs the function of blood. Ultimately, the goal is to use stem cells of an individual patient and create a personalized model of their reproductive system to test new drugs for safety and effectiveness.
Photo: Northwestern Medicine

Scientists have created a synthetic version of the female reproductive system that could be used to test drugs and help us better understand women’s health. The tiny system, which is shaped like a cube, is made up of a series of small tubes each containing cells from a different part of the female reproductive system: uterus, cervix, vagina, fallopian tubes, and liver.

The system, described in a study published today in Nature Communications, is called Evatar — like “avatar,” but combined with E for “Eve,” because it reproduces the female reproductive tract. Evatar mimics the hormones of the full-size reproductive system. The tiny tubes pump fluid that acts like blood, “feeds” the various cells, and helps these mini-organs communicate hormonally with each other, says study co-author Hunter Rogers, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University.

We know how to take cells from human organs and grow them inside Petri dishes, but a lot of different parts of the body interact with each other, and these dishes, or cell cultures, aren’t useful when you want to study systems. Evatar solves this problem.

It makes it easier to study conditions like endometriosis, a problem with the lining of the uterus, and fibroids, which are tumors inside the uterus. But the ultimate goal is personalized medicine. The system could be infused with cells from a specific patient, and then studied to figure out which particular drugs a person needs. “We could better study metabolism for you specifically,” says Teresa Woodruff, study lead author and a professor at Northwestern University. “Drugs can be tailored both in dose and in kind.”

Photo: Northwestern Medicine

One important innovation is that the scientists could keep the system running and the cells alive for a full 28-day menstrual cycle, says Vivek Gupta, a professor of pharmacy at St. John’s University, who was not involved with the study. “Half the time experiments fail and the cells just end up dying one fine day,” he says, “so this is an impressive, controlled environment and the experiment design is sturdy.”

But he warns that sometimes these mini-models don’t exactly reproduce what happens in bodies. “They all look good with human tissues grown on plates, but a lot of stuff works in vitro and then, when it comes to animals, fails,” Gupta says. “There should definitely be in vitro studies and microfluidics, but now let’s see how it correlates to an animal model.”

Next, the team is going to study how much longer the cells can live, and working on a male version called the DudeCube that reproduces the penis and testes. Woodruff stresses that the research was funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. “It’s so critical that we appreciate how important NIH funding is to develop these new levels of discovery that’s going to help inform health as well as disease,” she says.