Scientists Transplanted Laboratory-Grown Vaginas Into Women Born Without Them

After receiving the organs, which were "hand-sewn into a vagina-like shape," patients reported completely normal function several years later.

Apr 10 2014, 10:11pm

Image: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

For the first time ever, researchers have grown human vaginas in a laboratory and implanted them into women born with a rare disorder. The procedure has allowed each of the four women to have normally-functioning bodies.

The organs were grown by scientists at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center's Institute for Regenerative Medicine using cells from each patient's genitals. The patients were born with Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome, in which a woman is born with an underdeveloped or absent vagina and uterus. Each patient was a teenager at the time of the surgeries, which were performed between 2005 and 2008. In follow-up surveys, the girls reported having normal sexual function and quality of life.

The cultured cells were grown on a scaffold like this. Image: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Each vagina was grown in the lab and then were "hand-sewn into a vagina-like shape." Surgeons then artificially created a canal in each patient's body and the lab-grown organs were stitched into it. Soon after, the body naturally built blood vessels and started creating new cells normally.

From the researchers' paper, published in the Lancet, describing the process:

"In this pilot cohort study, they cultured, expanded, and seeded epithelial and muscle cells onto biodegradable scaffolds. After the constructed organs had matured in an incubator, these were implanted with a perineal approach. The investigators recorded the patients' history and undertook physical examinations, vaginoscopy, serial tissue biopsy samples, MRIs, and self-administered Female Sexual Function Index questionnaires. At a mean follow-up of 81 months, [the questionnaires] revealed excellent functional results and quality of life. Vaginal growth as the girls grew was evident, and annual biopsy samples showed normal vaginal wall."

Besides how awesome this obviously is for those four women, it represents a huge win for regenerative medicine and a look at what could be the future of transplantation. Researchers in the United Kingdom are working on making lab-grown noses, ears, and blood vessels, but so far, implanting them back into humans has proven difficult. With the success of this experiment, Anthony Atala, who worked on the transplantation team, says things like this could one be the norm for people who are born with disorders or otherwise need a new organ.

"This pilot study is the first to demonstrate that vaginal organs can be constructed in the lab and used successfully in humans," Atala said in a statement. "This may represent a new option for patients who require vaginal reconstructive surgeries. In addition, this study is one more example of how regenerative medicine strategies can be applied to a variety of tissues and organs."