Chinese scientists are celebrating a breakthrough in infertility treatment that enables young women with damaged reproductive organs to have children.
Regenerative medicine experts at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and doctors at Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital have successfully used human umbilical cord mesenchyme stem cells to rehabilitate a woman's damaged ovary, enabling her to give birth to a healthy boy last month.
The 34-year-old mother had been diagnosed with premature ovarian failure (POF) three years ago and treatment began in 2015.
POF affects women under the age of 40. In China, it affects more than 1 percent of women of childbearing age, and is rising, especially among younger women, says Sun Haixiang, chief gynecologist at Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital.
"A failed ovary cannot supply a woman with eggs," says Sun.
The most common therapy is estrogen and progesterone, but it has little effect, and many doctors view POF as incurable.
The research was led by Professor Dai Jianwu, of the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology under the CAS. He has studied the stem cell therapy since 2009 and started cooperating with Sun's team in 2015.
"I saw so many families spending years and savings on various treatments to no avail. Some people lost their jobs, and some lost their marriages," says Dai.
One difficulty was how to retain the stem cells at the injury site of the organs. After years of experiments on animals, including rats and pigs, researchers developed an injectable and degradable smart collagen scaffold with biomaterials to solve the problem.
The mother, surnamed Fang, had undergone stem cell transplants three times since December 2015, and became pregnant in May 2017.
Over the past two years, 23 patients have been treated this way. Nine have gradually recovered their ovarian functions, and two are pregnant.
Dai has had previous successes in repairing reproductive organs with stem cells. In 2014, his research team and gynecologists of Nanjing Drum Tower Hospital successfully implanted bone marrow stem cells into a woman's damaged endometrium. Four months later, she was pregnant after her uterus functions improved.
Since then, many other women have undergone the therapy and had babies.
China has more than 50 million infertile women, says Dai. About 20 percent to 40 percent of them suffer from endometrial damage. Stem cell transplants are less painful than other treatments and cut surgery time from 3 hours to 1 hour.
Stem cell therapy is also cheaper than in-vitro fertilization, says Dai, who believes endometrial damage will disappear as regenerative technology develops further.
In 2015, his team also pioneered stem cell therapy on patients with chronic spinal cord injuries.
Dai has a lot of confidence in regenerative medicine, saying it is possible that all human organs could be regenerated in the future.
"I am glad to see many patients recovering and realizing their dream of having children. A scientist has a responsibility not only to unite people with advanced technology, but also with hope."