In vitro fertilization (IVF) can be a grueling process, with hormones, shots, and procedures that can cause not only physical but emotional distress. So what if there was a way to make the process easier? Researchers in the UK may have found it. For the first time, human eggs have been grown from their earliest stage to maturity outside the body, in a laboratory.
The research, which was published in the journal Molecular Human Reproduction in January 2018, used ovarian tissue donated by women going through routine surgery. The scientists put the tissue into a special substance and were able to grow eggs from the tissue to the point where they could be fertilized. This has been done with mice before, but not humans.
The new technology could be used to help cancer patients, even those who've yet to go through puberty, protect their fertility during ovary-zapping chemo or radiation treatments. Plus, women with cancer might not have time to undergo IVF before treatments, so this new procedure would be quicker. Removing ovarian tissue exists as a possibility for cancer patients now, but it has to be put back in order to grow eggs—so removing it permanently instead could be safer for cancer recurrence.
The technique could actually help anyone going through fertility treatments. "In addition to being used for fertility preservation for young women undergoing cancer treatment, if the in vitro growth of very early-stage eggs to maturity is shown to be safe, then essentially it could be an alternative to conventional IVF," lead researcher Evelyn Telfer, PhD, of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, tells Parents.com. "This would mean women could have a small piece of ovarian tissue removed by laparoscopic surgery, which would be used to grow the eggs in the lab and then produce embryos after fertilization."
Currently, IVF patients have to take hormone injections to ramp up their ovaries' production of eggs, then have the eggs surgically removed, fertilized, and transferred back to the uterus. It's a fairly inefficient process that doesn't retrieve that many eggs, so it often requires a bunch of tries before success. "This would bypass the need for several cycles of hormonal treatment and uncertainty for women undergoing fertility treatment," Dr. Telfer says.