"Avatars are representations of actual people," Woodruff told Live Science. "Eve is kind of the mother of all humans; EVATAR is kind of the mother of all microhumans."
EVATAR is the culmination of five years of work by separate teams that were each assigned an organ to create "in a cube."
Scientists at Woodruff's lab, along with researchers at MIT, developed the ovaries. Julie Kim, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern, created the uterus. Spiro Getsios, an assistant professor in dermatology and cell and molecular biology at Northwestern, developed the cervix and vagina; and Joanna Burdette, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, developed the fallopian tubes. EVATAR also includes an artificial liver, because that organ metabolizes many drugs that people might take.
Most of the organs in the unit were developed using induced pluripotent stem cells, which are stem cells that are made from adult skin or blood cells that have been triggered to develop into tissue for a specific organ. [The 7 Biggest Mysteries of the Human Body]
The key advance of EVATAR is that each organ in the unit is connected by an artificial circulatory system.
"This mimics what actually happens in the body," Woodruff said in a statement from Northwestern University.
Woodruff said that EVATAR could improve researchers' understanding of the female body and help to guide the development of much-needed drugs to treat conditions such as fibroids, endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and many cancers. [5 Things Women Should Know About Ovarian Cancer]
Endometriosis affects an estimated 10 percent women during their reproductive years, according to the National Institutes of Health. PCOS affects between 5 and 10 percent of women, according to the NIH. Currently, there are very few treatments, other than surgery, for women with these conditions.
Hormones play a key role in these conditions, as well as in many cancers. EVATAR will help researchers to factor in the role of hormones when they study reproductive diseases, according to the researchers' paper, published today(March 28) in the journal Nature Communications.
"The systems are tremendous for the study of cancer, which often is studied as isolated cells rather than system-wide cells," Burdette said in the statement. "This is going to change the way we study cancer."
Another area of research that EVATAR could boost is fertility treatment, particularly for women who have had cancer and have undergone radiation and chemotherapy, which can damage a woman's ability to produce viable eggs, Woodruff said. By mimicking the body's ability to produce eggs, the devices could offer new insight into better ways to grow eggs outside the body.