Infertility is a common problem — roughly 6 percent of women in the United States are unable to get pregnant, and about 12 percent have trouble carrying a pregnancy to term. Traditional treatments for infertility can vary from hormone treatments to in vitro fertilization to surrogate egg implantation, but not all these treatments are effective, leaving many women unable to have biological children. Scientists may be able to offer a new ray of hope for parents who are having trouble conceiving or carrying a child to term — they’ve managed to grow human eggs in the lab for the first time. Let’s take a closer look at this new discovery and what it could mean for human fertility treatments.
For women who have received a cancer diagnosis, or another diagnosis that requires chemotherapy, radiation or the use of other medications that can damage the ovaries and the undeveloped eggs they hold, removing some ovarian tissue and freezing it before the treatment begins is a common practice. In theory, doctors can reintroduce this tissue after a successful treatment regimen, allowing the ovaries to re-grow. In some cases, this process can allow the woman to conceive naturally.
Unfortunately, this also creates a risk — by reintroducing tissue from before the treatment was completed, doctors may inadvertently be reintroducing malignant cells into the body — but without reintroducing the removed tissues into the body, it was previously impossible to harvest any eggs or develop the eggs to viability.
In studies, researchers have been able to grow undeveloped mouse eggs until they reached viability, but until now, human eggs could only be handled late in their developmental stages — this is the science behind in vitro fertilization.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh have proven it is possible to grow human eggs to viability, even from undeveloped ovarian tissue. The process itself still needs some work — out of the 87 immature eggs, around 10 percent of them developed to the point where they would be viable for implantation.
The quality of the eggs has not been tested at this stage, however — the eggs grew to the point where they would be viable, but none of them were fertilized. The eggs themselves, after brief study, appear to have several abnormalities that would prevent them from being viable if they were fertilized and implanted, but the fact the scientists got any eggs at all is a cause for celebration.
The future of fertility treatment
What does this discovery mean for the future of fertility treatment?
Not much, for the moment. The process is still very new, and while it has been successful in mice, none of the eggs created by this procedure would develop into viable embryos. Once the technique is perfected, though, it could change the way we look at fertility treatments.
Women who have to undergo chemotherapy, radiation, or other treatments that might damage their ovaries could have tissue removed and frozen, and then have their eggs developed and implanted once they are healthy again, without the risk of reintroducing malignant tissue. These eggs could also be fertilized before implantation, using either the father’s sperm or donor sperm depending on the situation, increasing the chances the pregnancy will be viable, rather than relying on more traditional means of conception.
Eggs could be harvested from egg donors and developed in the lab without risk to the donor, and without the need for the traditional regimen of hormone injections. This also lowers the risk of the donor becoming pregnant during the donation process.
We’re still a long way from being able to grow viable human eggs in the lab, but this is an amazing advancement that could shape the world of fertility treatments for years to come.
This article was written by Megan Ray Nichols. If you enjoyed this article, please visit her website Schooled by Science.