Lab-grown eggs 'offer fertility treatment hope'
9th February 2018 – Scientists say they have made a breakthrough that could lead to improved fertility treatments after growing human eggs to maturity in a UK laboratory.
They say the technique could safeguard the fertility of girls with cancer who may need to undergo harmful treatments.
Currently, cancer patients may have a piece of ovary removed and frozen before chemotherapy or radiotherapy. This section can then be re-implanted later to grow if the person wishes to start a family.
However, putting the tissue back carries a risk of reintroducing cancer.
Now, scientists say they have demonstrated that they can take immature human eggs and grow them until they are ready to be fertilised.
The study, carried out by the University of Edinburgh in collaboration with the Royal Infirmary Edinburgh, The Center for Human Reproduction in New York and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh, is published in the journal Molecular Human Reproduction.
Laboratory growing conditions
In previous studies, scientists had grown mouse eggs to produce live offspring. Human eggs had also been grown in laboratory conditions – but only from a relatively late stage of development. This is believed to be the first time that human eggs have been grown in the lab from the earliest stages to full maturity.
Scientists and medical experts worked together to develop suitable culture mediums to support each stage of growth.
The research has given new understanding into how human eggs develop at various stages, they say. This knowledge could boost understanding of infertility treatments and regenerative medicine.
Experts have pointed out that the treatment is inefficient, with only around 10% of the eggs developing to full maturity. Out of 87 immature eggs, only 9 developed fully.
Also, egg quality has not been tested as none have been fertilised.
'One of the seminal advances'
Commenting on the research in a statement, Professor Daniel Brison, scientific director of the Department of Reproductive Medicine at the University of Manchester, says: "This is an exciting breakthrough which shows for the first time that complete development of human eggs in the laboratory is possible, more than 20 years after this was achieved in mice.
"As the authors acknowledge, there is much more important research still to do, but this could pave the way for fertility preservation in women and girls with a wider variety of cancers than is possible using existing methods."
Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at the University of Kent, says: The main 'selling point' of this paper is that, in the past, the authors have been successful in developing 2 stages of the process through which ovary material can be taken and an egg ready for fertilisation can be produced. Here, they have, through meticulous experimentation, worked out how to complete the third and final stage. This is all proof of principle and small numbers at this stage but the signs are good."
He adds: "It will be a while until this is implemented in the clinic but, if and when it is, this will be seen as one of the seminal advances."
Aileen Feeney, chief executive of the charity Fertility Network UK comments: "Infertility is a devastating disease which can cause depression, suicidal feelings, relationship breakdown, social isolation and damage career prospects and finances; that's why it’s vital to protect an individual's future fertility.
"This research is very much in its infancy, but its potential significance for women and girls hoping to protect their future fertility is huge."