EVATAR is a Female Reproductive System in a Dish
This article was originally published in the Northwestern Now news center. It has been edited for the Breakthroughs in Care audience.
Northwestern Medicine has developed a miniature female reproductive tract that fits in the palm of your hand and could eventually change the future of research and treatment of diseases in women’s reproductive organs. This new 3-D technology — called EVATAR — is made with human tissue and will enable scientists to conduct much-needed testing of new drugs for safety and effectiveness on the female reproductive system.
EVATAR will help scientists understand women’s health diseases such as endometriosis, fibroids (which affect up to 80 percent of women), cancer and infertility.
The ultimate goal is to use stem cells of an individual patient and create a personalized model of their reproductive system.
EVATAR, which resembles a small cube, contains 3-D models of ovaries, fallopian tubes, the uterus, cervix, vagina and liver with special fluid pumping through all of them that performs the function of blood.
“This is nothing short of a revolutionary technology,” said lead investigator Teresa Woodruff, PhD, a reproductive scientist and director of the Women’s Health Research Institute at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Woodruff also is the Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and a member of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University.
The EVATAR technology is revolutionary because the reproductive tract creates a dynamic culture in which organs communicate with each other rather than having static cells sit in a flat plastic dish. The organ models are able to communicate with each other via secreted substances, including hormones, to closely resemble how they all work together in the body.
“This mimics what actually happens in the body,” Woodruff said. “In 10 years, this technology, called microfluidics, will be the prevailing technology for biological research.”
The microfluidic device is the size of a bento box and has a series of cables and pumps that cause media (simulated blood) to flow between wells.
Woodruff is working on the project with other scientists at Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Draper Laboratory, Inc. For the project, Woodruff developed the ovaries; Julie Kim, PhD, the Susy Y. Hung Research Professor and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Feinberg, the uterus; Spiro Getsios, PhD, assistant professor in dermatology and cell and molecular biology at Feinberg, developed the cervix and vagina and Joanna Burdette, PhD, of UIC, developed the fallopian tubes. The liver is included in the system because it metabolizes drugs.
The scientists believe the technology will provide insight into the causes of endometriosis, fibroids and some cancers.
“All of these diseases are hormonally driven, and we really don’t know how to treat them except for surgery,” UIC’s Burdette said. “This system will enable us to study what causes these diseases and how to treat them.”
“The systems are tremendous for the study of cancer, which often is studied as isolated cells rather than system-wide cells. This is going to change the way we study cancer,” Burdette added.
The new technology works largely because the scientists developed a universal medium that acts in the same way as blood and circulates between each of the organ systems.
“One of the reasons this technology has not advanced in the past is no one had solved the universal media problem,” Woodruff said. “We reasoned that 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.”
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