In a world of unbelievable medical advances, from scientists growing a human brain in a petri dish to 3D printing a new foot for a disabled duck, we keep vaulting the line that separates the impossible from the possible. Even so, this story is really out there, or as my colleague Nick pointed out, really “in there.” Scientists grew and implanted new vaginas in four women.
Beyond watching David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, a film that stars Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists who do some seriously weird stuff with women who have seriously weird reproductive issues, I’ve never really thought about the fact that some women out there don’t have vaginas. The condition is called vaginal aplasia, and it basically means that while the fetus was growing in the womb, the vagina didn’t form properly and doesn’t connect to the uterus. Obviously, it would be pretty devastating to have this condition for numerous reasons, and up until now, artificially constructed vaginas, which generally consists of making a cavity lined with skin flaps and/or sections of the intestine, weren’t great substitutes. But now, it appears that new vaginas can be grown from a series of tissue samples and scaffolds.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina pioneered the technique. First, doctors take a tissue sample from the women’s vulvas and cultivate a large number of cells. Then, the doctors scan the women’s pelvic area to determine the appropriate size and shape for the new vagina. They then create a 3D scaffold customized for each patient, and attach the new cells to the scaffold—muscle cells on the outside, vulvar cells on the inside. The artificial vaginas were then grown in a bioreactor until they were ready for surgical implantation.
At the time the cells were taken and the patients were scanned, all four of the women were teenagers. The process took a while, and the women received their implants eight years ago. Doctors waited to report the procedure until they were sure the surgeries were successful, and it appears they were, in all four cases. Two of the four women now have a vagina that connects to their uterus, so it’s theoretically possible for them to get pregnant, though that hasn’t happened yet. All four of the women also report normal sexual function, including “desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction.” After all that, I certainly hope so.
“Really for the first time we’ve created a whole organ that was never there to start with,” says Anthony Atala, the director of Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine. This makes me wonder what other organs we can create, perhaps in some strange places. Maybe that explains how the Centauri ended up with six penises?