UBC scientists have printed human testicular cells in 3D and identified promising early signs of sperm-producing abilities in a pair of world firsts.
Researchers, led by Dr. Ryan Flannigan, an UBC assistant professor, believe the technique will one day offer a solution to people who are facing potentially deadly male infertility.
In at least half of cases, male factors are a contributing factor, according to Dr. Flannigan, who works at the Vancouver Prostate Centre at the Vancouver General Hospital.
Were they transforming these cells into a very specific structure that mimics human anatomy, which we believe is our best strategy of stimulating sperm production. This might lead to new fertility treatments for couples who have no other options.
Small tubes known as seminiferous tubules produce sperm within human testicles. In the most severe form of male infertility, known as non-obstructive azoospermia (NOA), no sperm is found in ejaculate due to a decreased sperm production within these structures.
Although some patients may be assisted by doctors by performing an operation to discover extremely rare sperm, Dr. Flannigan claims that this procedure is only beneficial for half the time.
Unfortunately, for the other half of these individuals, they do not have any options, because we cannot guarantee sperm.
Dr. Flannigans'' team is aiming to assist those who are sick.
The researchers used a biopsy to collect stem cells from a patient with NOA. They then grew them and 3D printed onto a petri dish into a hollow tubular structure that resembles the sperm-producing seminiferous tubules.
Twelve days after printing, the scientists found that the cells had survived. Not only did they mature into several of the specialized cells involved in sperm production and showed a significant improvement in spermatogonial stem cell maintenance, both signs of early growth potential. The results of the study have been recently published in the Science of Fertility and Sterility.
It''s a huge milestone, seeing these cells survive and begin to differentiate. Dr. Flannigan believes the team has a long road ahead, but it makes him extremely optimistic.
The paper cell is now developing an algorithm to induce sperm production. To do this, the printed cells will expose them to various nutrients and growth factors and fine-tune the structure arrangement to facilitate cell-to-cell interactions.
If they can obtain the cells to produce sperm, they may use that sperm to fertilize an egg by in vitro fertilization, posing a new fertility treatment option for couples.
The Dr. Flannigans research group has also begun to investigate the genetic and molecular mechanisms that contribute to NOA. They have been employing various single cell sequencing techniques to understand the gene expression and characteristics of each individual cell, then employing computational modeling of this data to better understand the root causes of the condition and to identify new treatment options. The work has been very cooperative, involving UBC researchers across computer science, mathematics, and engineering.
Increasingly, were learning that there are likely to be many different causes of infertility, and that each case is quite patient-specific, according to Dr. Flannigan. With that in mind, were taking a personalized, precision medicine approach, whereby we collect and process cells from a patient, try to identify what abnormalities they present, and then 3D print and support them in ways that help them overcome those original deficiencies.