Scientists Create Custom-Made, Working Vaginas in the Lab

| by Allison Geller

A team of medical experts has managed to successfully create lab-grown vaginas that function just like the real thing.

Four young women who were born with abnormal or missing vaginas report normal function now that they’re sexually active, according to a Reuters report. The miracle is the work of a team of scientists from the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina.

The women were implanted with lab-grown organs made with their own cells, complete with tracheas, bladders, and urethras. They have grown with the women and are indistinguishable from natural organs.

Two of the four women, who were born with a uterus but no vagina, are now menstruating normally. Previously they suffered from abdominal pain during their time of the month.

“They can't menstruate, especially when they have a severe defect where they don't have an opening," said Dr. Anthony Atala, the Institute’s director. The blood collects in the abdomen, causing pain, he explained. "It has nowhere else to go."

Atala says it’s not yet clear whether they women can bear children, but he is hopeful.

Atala’s team, which includes colleagues in Mexico, had previously used regenerative medicine to make replacement bladders and urethras for young boys. But this is the first time viable, custom-made vaginas have been successfully made in the lab, offering new possibilities for women in need of reconstructive surgery.

The team performed the surgery on four girls between 2005 and 2008 when they were between 13 and 18 years old. First they collected a small amount of cells from their genital tissue in order to grow both muscle and epithelial cells in the lab. After four weeks, they started applying the cells in layers to a collagen scaffold, which can be absorbed by the body. The vaginas were then shaped to fit each patient.

A week after that, the organs were surgically attached to the young women. Nerves and blood vessels formed and new cells replaced the collagen scaffolding.

"By the six-month time point, you couldn't tell the difference between engineered organ and the normal organ," Atala said.

The treatment has changed the lives of the patients, including one Mexican woman, now 24, who suffered from a rare disorder called Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome.

“When I discovered that there was this possibility for me, I was very happy,” she said in Spanish. “It is important to let other girls that have the same problem know that it does not end knowing that you have the disease because there is a treatment and you can have a normal life.”

Sources:  Reuters, NBC