NIEHS grantees at Northwestern University have developed a model of the female reproductive tract that mimics the human body and fits in the palm of the hand. The new technology, called EVATAR, gives scientists an advanced tool to better understand diseases such as endometriosis, fibroids, cancer, and infertility.
EVATAR will also provide a platform to test new drugs for safety and effectiveness. The paper announcing the advance was published March 28 in Nature Communications and has received wide coverage in the press.
“This is nothing short of a revolutionary technology,” said Teresa Woodruff, Ph.D., the lead researcher, in a Northwestern University press release. Woodruff, a past president of the Endocrine Society, is working with scientists at Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Draper Laboratory, Inc.
The study, part of the National Institutes of Health Tissue Chip Program, was jointly funded by several organizations within the National Institutes of Health.
- National Center for Advancing Translational Science
- Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
- Office of Research on Women’s Health
The project aims to use stem cells from a patient to create a personalized model of their reproductive system. “This will help us develop individualized treatments and see how females may metabolize drugs differently from males,” Woodruff said.
EVATAR resembles a small cube containing three-dimensional models of ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, cervix, vagina, and liver. All of the organs are created from human stem cells, except the ovaries, which come from mouse stem cells. The organ models communicate with each other using a system that mimics what actually happens in the body.
“Organs in the body are in one medium — the blood — so we created a simple version of the blood and allowed the tissues to communicate via the medium,” Woodruff said. “In 10 years, this technology, called microfluidics, will be the prevailing technology for biological research.”
New avenues for testing
“This study represents the culmination of five years of work by a team of experts in biology and engineering that Dr. Woodruff brought together,” said Leslie Reinlib, Ph.D., a program director in the NIEHS Exposure, Response, and Technology Branch (ERTB).
The technology opens up new avenues for chemical testing, although there are limitations. “The cells can only grow and live for a month,” Reinlib said, “so we can’t use it for long-term exposure studies.” However, they do survive for the length of a menstrual cycle.
The ability of EVATAR to mimic the dynamic culture in which human organs communicate with each other represents a big advance over static cells sitting in a flat plastic dish. “This technology will help us look at drug testing and drug discovery in a brand new way,” Woodruff said.
During a 2014 lecture, Woodruff gave a NIEHS audience a preview of what was to come. “This is a story that’s really emerging,” said an enthusiastic Woodruff. David Balshaw, Ph.D., head of ERTB, concurred. “This is one of the most exciting projects in my portfolio,” he said.
Citation: Xiao S, Coppeta JR, Rogers HB, Isenberg BC, Zhu J, Olalekan SA, McKinnon KE, Dokic D, Rashedi AS, Haisenleder DJ, Malpani SS, Arnold-Murray CA, Chen K, Jiang M, Bai L, Nguyen CT, Zhang J, Laronda MM, Hope TJ, Maniar KP, Pavone ME, Avram MJ, Sefton EC, Getsios S, Burdette JE, Kim JJ, Borenstein JT, Woodruff TK. 2017. A microfluidic culture model of the human reproductive tract and 28-day menstrual cycle. Nat Commun 8:14584.
(John Yewell is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison. This story is based on the Northwestern University press release mentioned above.)