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Teresa Woodruff Speaks on Oncofertility at Grand Challenges Lecture

For Teresa Woodruff, Thomas J. Watkins Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, the value of her decades of research in women's fertility - and, most recently, fertility in cancer survivors - goes beyond advances in technology and medicine: the value lies in the women who finally have options in the face of a life-threatening disease.

"We'll have a next generation of health," she said Tuesday as part of her Grand Challenges in Medicine and Engineering lecture - a partnership between the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and the Feinberg School of Medicine that brings together engineering and medical faculty members to catalyze interdisciplinary collaboration. And it's that hope that pushes Woodruff to innovate across both of these disciplines.

Woodruff's specialty is oncofertility - finding new ways for young female cancer survivors to reproduce after cancer treatment. This group - which Woodruff estimates at about 140,000 new patients a year - previously had little to no options for preserving fertility. While male cancer patients can easily cryogenically store sperm for future use, this technique doesn't work for the much more complicated human egg.

Scientists have been able to collect a follicle - an immature egg and the cells around it - and cryopreserve it to transplant into a woman after treatment, but when the follicle is placed in a Petri dish to mature, the cells spread out and no longer perform the functions needed for the egg to grow.

Woodruff, working with Lonnie Shea, professor of chemical and biological engineering, realized that for the egg to mature, it needed to be connected to the cells around it. Shea and Woodruff developed an encapsulation method that used alginate - the material used as thickener in ice cream - to encapsulated the follicle and cells to keep them connected in the Petri dish. When hormones are added to the capsule, the egg grows as it does inside the body. And the egg can even be fertilized and brought to birth - the first two laboratory mice born from this method were named NU Born and NU Age.

Though they cannot currently use this method in humans, they are working with human follicles - donated by female cancer patients - to bring human eggs to new stages of maturity. Recently Woodruff and Shea successfully grew a woman's immature follicle to a healthy and nearly mature egg in the laboratory. Woodruff achieved the new advance by suspending the human ovarian follicle in two different kinds of three-dimensional gels.

Along the way, Woodruff has made advances in learning the basic biology of the female reproductive system, and she also helped create a national Oncofertility Consortium - an interdisciplinary initiative designed to explore the reproductive future of cancer survivors. Now, women nationwide have access to information about fertility preservation options in the face of life-threatening diseases.
"And that information, we think, is just as therapeutic," she said.