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B.C. scientists discover how to 3D print testicular cells, offer infertile couples hope

“We are really excited about this,” says the lead researcher.

3D printing in the medical field has reached another milestone.

UBC scientists have discovered how to 3D print human testicular cells, a technique that one day could help people living with untreatable forms of male infertility.

“We’re 3D printing these cells into a very specific structure that mimics human anatomy, which we think is our best shot at stimulating sperm production,” says Dr. Ryan Flannigan, a urology assistant professor at the B.C. university. "If successful, this could open the door to new fertility treatments for couples who currently have no other options.”

Infertility affects 15 per cent of couples and male factors are a contributing cause in at least half those cases, Flannigan adds.

The most severe form of male infertility is known as non-obstructive azoospermia (NOA), where no sperm is found in the ejaculate.

Some who are diagnosed with NOA can get surgery to find extremely rare sperm, Flannigan says, but the procedure is only successful about half the time.

It's this group that Flannigan's team wants to help as their chances for having a biological child end there.

For the recent study, the UBC researchers retrieved stem cells from a NOA patient. The cells were then grown and 3D printed onto a petri dish into a hollow tubular structure that resembles the tiny tubes that produce sperm.

Twelve days after printing, the scientists found that the cells had survived and were showing early signs of sperm-producing capabilities.

“We are really excited about this,” Flannigan says of the “hopeful” discovery.

Now, the team is working to “coach” the printed cells to produce sperm. If that happens, those sperm could be used to fertilize an egg by in vitro fertilization.

Through their research, Flannigan says they've been able to take a closer look at what contributes to NOA.

“Our whole lab is really trying to move towards understanding what is going on for these individuals who are not able to produce sperm and can we identify the mechanisms and then overcome them with technology such as this,” he says.

Before the technology reaches a clinic, Flannigan says safety measures and experiments would have to take place.

This is just the beginning of their journey, he says.