Eight years ago, researchers attempted to implant laboratory-grown vaginal tissue into four girls with a rare syndrome which results in absent or under-developed genital structures in women. The procedure had previously only been attempted with laboratory mice. This breakthrough technique, pioneered eight years ago, was just announced to the world in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet.
The study was conducted by two teams, one at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and the other on-site at Federico Gómez Children’s Hospital in Mexico City, Mexico.
The women ranged in age from 13 to 18 at the time of their surgery. All of them suffered from a condition known as Mayer-Rokitansky-Küster-Hauser Syndrome (MRKHS), which results in underdeveloped genitals. Women who have this condition may completely or partially lack a uterus, cervix, and vaginal canal.
Previous treatments available to people with MRKHS depended on the degree of vaginal development. Some treatments consist of physically stretching the vaginal tissue that is present to make a fuller vaginal canal. The first option doctors usually attempt is dilation with a medical stent, a device similar to a tampon in appearance. The second option is to surgically create a vaginal canal using skin grafts from the buttocks or the colon, according to the Mayo Clinic.
The new technique developed at the Wake Forest Institute involves taking a sample of whatever vaginal tissue is present, along with a few cells of smooth muscle, and a small amount of mucosal tissue, which provides vaginal lubrication, and growing them on a cylindrical scaffold in a sterile environment. The small samples of cells form into the three necessary layers of tissue for a fully functioning vagina: a protective outer layer, a lubricating mucosal layer, and a muscle layer underneath it all.
The new tissues were readily accepted by the patients’ bodies, as they were grown from the patients’ own cells. The scaffolding used to grow the cells was implanted along with the vaginal tissue, broke down over time, and was absorbed harmlessly into the patients’ bodies.
After the newly made vaginal canals were implanted, the study followed the four women through eight years of aftercare, including regular checkups to ensure that the vaginal tissue continued to grow and function normally.
Throughout eight years of follow-up, the women reported that their vaginas responded normally to sexual arousal. The two patients with fully-formed uteruses were able to menstruate regularly, which is normally not possible for individuals with MRKHS. The women involved in the study have pain-free sexual intercourse, which has not always been possible with previous techniques.
One patient told the Washington Post that she feels truly fortunate, because she’ll be able to “have a normal life – completely normal.” She added, “It’s important to let other girls that have the same problem know that it does not end in knowing you have the disease, because there is a treatment.”
Jain Waldrip is a recent graduate of Indiana University Bloomington with majors in History and Linguistics. She previously served as the vice president of SAGE (Sexuality And Gender Equality).