Few people have ever heard of the genetic condition Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser syndrome, commonly called MRKH, but for women afflicted with it, life is difficult. Women who have this condition have underdeveloped (or absent) vaginas and uteruses, so they often can't experience a normal sex life, menstruate, or reproduce.
Doctors have studied and struggled with MRKH for 25 years, but a research team from Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has finally found a way to normalize life for women with severe cases. Using the women's own cells, the researchers have successfully grown vaginas in a laboratory setting and implanted them in four patients.
Dr. Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, thinks that this procedure is a breakthrough for women with extreme MRKH, saying "There are MRKH patients with a small vaginal organ who can benefit from non-surgical treatments, but for women whose organ is fully absent, this surgery is a new option."
Dr. Atala is a urologic surgeon whose team has been working on perfecting a laboratory-grown vagina for over 20 years. The new study, published in the journal Lancet, details the research success, harvesting the patient's own cells and layering them on scaffolding modeled in the shape of a vagina — each specifically designed for the individual woman.
The research team recruited four women ages 13 to 18 with a severe form of MRKH, performing the surgeries between 2005 and 2008. For up to 8 years following the procedure these women were monitored for complications and given numerous tests to assess the function of her lab-grown vaginas. The surgeries were remarkably successful: functionality including desire, arousal, lubrication, sensation, and painless intercourse were normal. Because the organs were grown using cells from the patient's own body, no anti-rejection medications were needed.
The team at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center is currently testing the procedure on more patients and working toward clinical trials. They believe that their breakthrough research will help not only MRKH patients, but apply to women who have vaginal cancer.
To learn more about living with MRKH watch the interview below featuring Miss Michigan 2013 Jaclyn Schultz, who was diagnosed at 16 when she failed to menstruate.