In what appears to be a scientific first, researchers from the US and the UK have taken early-stage human egg cells and grown them into full maturity in the lab. This is an incredible step in terms of what could eventually be big news for infertility treatments in women. This process in itself isn’t new. This has been done with mice as well as human eggs. But in those cases, this was done from cells that were already at a late stage of development. What makes this study unique is that it’s the first time that scientists have achieved this with early-stage human egg cells.
Developed by researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the Center for Human Reproduction, the technique could eventually be administered to women whose eggs don’t develop fully in their bodies, and as a way to preserve a cancer patients’ ability to have biological offspring in cases where chemotherapy or radiotherapy has made them infertile. Conceptually, this breakthrough means a girl’s immature eggs can be recovered from her ovarian tissue, matured in the lab, and then cryogenically stored for future in vitro fertilization. Currently, a piece of the ovary is removed before chemotherapy and then re-implanted after the treatments are done, but this introduces the risk of putting cancer cells right back into a patient’s body.
What makes this so incredible? The development of effective culture mediums. Plain and simple. Well, not really simple, but that’s the big take away here. What are they exactly? They are environments in which the immature cells could be supported through each stage of development and brought to full maturity. In experiments, the researchers extracted ovarian tissue from 10 women during routine surgery, all of whom were in their 20s or 30s. The cells were bathed in a series of complex chemical nutrients over the course of four stages of development. Nearly 50 eggs of out 87 attempts managed to reach the third stage, with nine making it through to full maturity.
While I think that these are high numbers, they are actually just a small sample. But it does provide a proof of concept that complete development of human oocytes can occur in vitro. The authors of the study believe that “further optimization with [physical] evaluation and fertilization potential of [lab grown] oocytes is required to determine whether they are normal”. Even so, this is still good news.
I think some will not view this as positively as I do but think about it from this perspective – we are one step closer to an end goal – whatever that might be. If it’s that no woman will ever have to deal with fertility issues, then this is a huge step in that direction. If that’s not the end goal, then this is more research moving us in the direction that we need to be going. While I don’t always sound this positive about other topics, I tend to look at medical advancements differently. Without them, we would all have died from smallpox. Think about that.