Why this menstrual cycle experiment is a huge victory for women’s health

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EVATAR is a female reproductive tract that fits in the palm of one’s hand .

Image: Northwestern Medicine

For decades, science maintained an awkward relationship with women as research topics. Basically, scientists discounted them for logistical and cultural reasons, hoping that studies involving men and male animals would apply to women as well.

Here’s the not-so-surprising twisting: That’s actually not how biology runs. Sex and gender thing a lot when you’re testing a new medicine, trying to identify a disease’s risk factors or hunting for a remedy. This gender blind spot has put women’s health at a big disadvantage, but a study published this week in Nature Communications could dramatically change that.

The study debuted a tool its discoverers call Evatar( and yes, that’s an intentional nod to the one and only Eve ). The device is made up of plastic wells and containers that separately home a mouse ovary and human fallopian, uterine, cervical and liver tissue. It simulated the menstrual cycle through reproductive hormones produced by the ovary. While the miniature reproductive tract can’t bleed, it can prompt the release of an egg from the ovary.

This little wonder of biology and engineering, known as a tissue microchip, is no larger than a Kindle.

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This 3D culture system be the first time that of its kind and it effectively gives researchers a tiny laboratory to test conditions like birthrate, the effects of chemical exposure, and how well certain drugs work and not only in specific experimentations overseen by scientists. Instead, the hope is that Evatar will eventually become so common that patients can show up at a doctor’s office and have their own cells cultured in the device to see how their body reacts to a chemotherapy medicine for ovarian cancer, a different type of family planning, new care for a sexually transmitted disease, or something else entirely.

“This is absolutely a victory for women’s health, ” mentions study co-author, Kelly E. McKinnon, a doctoral candidate at Northwestern University.

As recently as a year ago, mentions McKinnon, fundamental research in medicine developing still predominantly relied on male mice topics. Now that research incorporates postmenopausal women, which is an improvement yet still leaves many unanswered questions about how drugs affect women of childbearing age.

“We’re actually trying to address that gap and “re coming” with a new system.”

“We’re actually trying to address that gap and “re coming” with a new system, ” mentions McKinnon.

The gap is an infamous one in medication and science. Female sex hormones do present their own unique challenges in experimentations because they regularly fluctuate, and that’s partly why scientists defaulted to male human or animal study topics. In the past, there were also ethical concerns about negatively affecting birthrate for women of childbearing age, a worry that effectively excluded women from research while humen continued to participate.

Even 30 years ago, researchers routinely conducted men-only studies. The groundbreaking research on taking aspirin to prevent a heart attack? That was done in the 1980 s with 22,000 male participates. As retired Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski once recalled, researchers working on one aging study apparently didn’t include women because there wasn’t a dames room available for female participants.

It wasn’t until 1994, when Congress passed a law involving the National Institutes of Health to include women in its clinical studies and analyze results by sexuality or gender, that things began to change.

Evatar, a collaborative project led by the Woodruff Lab at Northwestern University and funded partly by the NIH, is proof of how far we’ve come in just two decades. Dr. Les Reinlib, program director for the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, mentions the tool has the potential to aid scientists understand the interaction between genes and environment as they never have before. For women’s health, it could lead to important revelations about contraception, cancer, and fertility.

Each divided bay within the cube contains a 3-D framework of a different part of the reproductive tract.

Image: Northwestern Medicine

“This is a lot closer to the route people are, ” Reinlib mentions of Evatar’s ability to model the female reproductive tract in three dimensions. “It furnishes cells the opportunity to respond the route they do in nature.”

What it’s not designed to do is become sentient or be used as an artificial womb for a test-tube newborn. Evatar’s ovaries and human tissues are not connected to each other as a reconstruction of a woman’s reproductive organs. Instead they are linked via tiny channels that allow the hormones to flow throughout the system. Even though the team mimicked the hormonal response of maternity in its experiment, the egg was not transported from the fallopian tube to the uterine tissue. There also isn’t a brain to signal the beginning of ovulation through the pituitary gland just a researcher jumpstarting the system with dosages of reproductive hormones.

The Woodruff laboratory is working toward applying the tool for testing medicine toxicity related to female reproductive organs. There likewise plans to create a male equivalent of Evatar called wait for it Adatar.

In the meantime, we get the thrill of waiting to see if Evatar indeed propels women’s reproductive health and medicine into the 21 st century.

WATCH: This new at-home birthrate exam lets you zoom in on your sperm

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