Researchers at the University of British Columbia have developed a technique that lets them 3D print human testicular cells into a hollow tubular structure that mimics the seminiferous tubules found in the testicles. The printed structures are showing encouraging signs that they may be able to produce viable sperm, and the researchers are still working to bring this outcome to fruition. The technology may provide a path to conception for men with fertility issues that are currently difficult or impossible to treat.
Infertility can be a huge burden for those that wish to have children. With medical advances, there are now viable treatment options for many people, but some forms of infertility are particularly difficult to treat. “Infertility affects 15 per cent of couples and male factors are a contributing cause in at least half those cases,” said Ryan Flannigan, a researcher involved in this latest study.
One particularly challenging form of male infertility is non-obstructive azoospermia (NOA), where sperm is not present in the patient’s semen, and currently the only way to obtain sperm for an IVF procedure is to perform surgery to try to find elusive sperm cells within the testicles. This is typically only successful about half of the time.
In an effort to find a less invasive and more successful approach, these researchers are developing a technique that would allow them to obtain stem cells from the testicles of such patients through a biopsy, and then 3D print the cells into structures that can then produce their own sperm in vitro.
“We’re 3D printing these cells into a very specific structure that mimics human anatomy, which we think is our best shot at stimulating sperm production,” said Flannigan. “If successful, this could open the door to new fertility treatments for couples who currently have no other options.”
Cross section of human testicular cells 3D printed into a tubular structure.
So far, the UBC researchers printed the testicular stem cells into tubular structures, and twelve days later the cells had survived and matured into specialized sperm production cells, and showed early-stage indications that they may be able to produce sperm cells. The researchers are testing the structures with different growth factors and nutrients to coax them to begin sperm production.
If they are successful, the technology could represent a lifeline for men with one of the most challenging forms of infertility. “It’s a huge milestone, seeing these cells survive and begin to differentiate. There’s a long road ahead, but this makes our team very hopeful,” said Flannigan.
Here’s a video of the 3D printing of testicular cells: