For the first time, researchers have created a laboratory model of the entire female reproductive tract, complete with hormone signaling. This 3-D “organ on a chip” is not meant to bring scientists closer to bionic companionship, but may. be able to accurately simulate women’s menstrual cycles, providing researchers with a non-human laboratory in which to do infertility research. The system is called EVATAR—a neologism mashed together from “Eve” and “avatar”–and it might hold new answers about how miscarriages and periods work.
“EVATAR could enable us to test whether a drug may affect fertility in women or it if toxic to the liver,” Shuo Xiao, one of the system’s architects, told Fatherly. “It is the future of drug testing in women and personalized medicine and will revolutionize the way we study the organ interaction.”
Interestingly, Xiao refers to EVATAR as a she.
The way the system works is every 28 days, the “ovary”, cultured on a plastic chip, releases hormones and an egg. The hormones travel through a series of channels meant to serve at the Fallopian tubes and into the uterus. The system is made up of five different reproductive and non-reproductive tissues linked together by a blood-like liquid carrying hormones, cell-signaling molecules and drugs, Xiao describes. Of these, the Fallopian tubes, uterus, and cervix came from women who underwent hysterectomies, and the liver (for metabolizing medication) was human as well. However, the ovaries, which are rarely removed from women because of the high risk of complication, came from mice.
Until now, there hasn’t been a decent animal model for the 28-day human reproductive cycle. Not only will the system help test drugs, but Xiao also hopes that it will be instrumental in studying reproductive diseases, like cancer. “EVATAR will also allow personalized disease model of cancer, Polycystic ovarian syndrome , and other issues, while being used in the development of personalized treatment plans.” It may even help with artificial womb technology, he says.
Of course, EVATAR has her limitations. Xiao notes that she is not connected with other organ systems, inlcuding the pituitary system, which regulates ovarian function and the menstrual cycle. Put a different way, EVATAR is PMSing, but not technically menstruating just yet.
Still, EVATAR’s mere existence is a part of a much broader biomedical engineering effort known as human-on-a-chip, or organ-on-a-chip, where microchips lined with human cells mimic the mechanics of organs and organ systems. Experts hope that this kind of technology could yield more accurate research and eliminate the need for animal testing all together.
“EVATAR could be connected with other platforms being developed across the country, making it possible to give a heart, vasculature, lungs, and other vital organs, as hormones play a role in all of these vital tissues too, and allow us to study interactions between organ systems,” Xiao says.