Scientists have taken the first step toward revolutionizing fertility treatments.
In vitro fertilization 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, 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 in vitro growth (IVG) 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.
Better than IVF
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.
Fertility patients may have heard of a process currently used called IVM, or in vitro maturation, which removes eggs at an earlier stage and matures them in the lab. But this new technology is even better. "IVM is the process of maturing eggs that have already grown and developed in the body to a significant stage but not full maturity," Dr. Telfer says. "This [new] method of in vitro growth combined with IVM allows the most immature stages to develop outside the body."
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More research is needed
But we've still got a long way to go before such treatments can become a reality. "The methods need to be optimized to ensure the best quality eggs are being produced in the lab," Dr. Telfer says. "The chromosomes need to be checked, fertilization potential needs to be determined and any embryos formed need to be thoroughly tested at a molecular level to determine how normal they are." Only after it's been shown to be safe, she says, would it even reach a clinical trial.
For now, the method itself provides more potential for understanding how human cells grow and develop. "This system allows us to find out so much more about the mechanisms regulating human egg development," Dr. Telfer says. "The ability to study this process in detail will lead to further advances in the area of reproductive sciences and medicine."