All of the women had been born with a condition known as vaginal aplasia in which the vagina did not form properly while they were in their mother’s womb.
Existing treatments for the condition can involve surgically creating a cavity, which is then lined with skin grafts or parts of the intestine.
But pioneering technology was used by doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina to construct vaginas for the four women who were all in their teenage years at the time of the procedures.
The new development, published in the Lancet medical journal, was hailed by experts as the latest example of the power of regenerative medicine.
In the procedures, a tissue sample and a biodegradable scaffold were used to grow vaginas the right size and shape for each woman as well as provide a tissue match.
The vaginas were grown in a bioreactor until they were ready to be surgically implanted into the patients.
While this is the first time the results have been reported, the first implants took place eight years ago. Since then, all the women have reported normal sexual function.
Vaginal aplasia can lead to other abnormalities in the reproductive organs, but in two of the women the vagina was connected to the uterus.
Although there have been no pregnancies, it is theoretically possible for those women. Dr Anthony Atala, director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest, told the BBC News website: “Really for the first time we’ve created a whole organ that was never there to start with, it was a challenge.”
Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland have used similar techniques to reconstruct the noses of patients after skin cancer. The development could replace the need to take cartilage from the ribs or ears in order to rebuild the damage caused by cutting the cancer away.
Prof Martin Birchall, who has worked on lab-grown windpipes, commented: “These authors have not only successfully treated several patients with a difficult clinical problem, but addressed some of the most important questions facing translation of tissue engineering technologies.
“The steps between first-in-human experiences such as those reported here and their use in routine clinical care remain many, including larger trials with long-term follow-up, the development of clinical grade processing, scale-out, and commercialisation.”
Meanwhile, the BBC’s health and science reporter James Gallagher described the development as “an exciting glimpse into the future of medicine.”
“Using living tissue as building material to transform the lives of patients has already happened with bladders, blood vessels and windpipes. Now you can add vaginas and noses to the list,” he commented.
“There are even attempts to make more complex organs. Weakly beating hearts, and kidneys that can produce urine, have been made in animal studies. But this is still a long way from being used in humans.
“Expect 3D printing to revolutionise this field as the technology to precisely place both the cells and the scaffolding improves.” (BBC News)