It’s estimated that 12% of women between the age of 15 and 44 suffer from some type of fertility problem. In the UK the figure is thought to be around 1 in 7.  According to the WHO, one in four couples are affected by infertility, and it’s considered to be a “global public health issue”, with around 10% of women around the world being affected overall.

A lot of investment has been made in the search for improved fertility treatments for couples, and now scientists have made new advances that could offer hope for millions. A new study has shown that scientists are able to replicate the process of egg cells maturing in the ovaries in a lab environment – resulting in human eggs being grown artificially for the first time.

The process of in vitro maturation (IVM) could be very helpful to women who don’t ovulate naturally or who don’t respond to IVF treatment. The study’s senior author, Professor Evelyn Telfer of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh said “If we can show these eggs are normal and can form embryos, then there are many applications for future treatments.”

However, although the eggs produced in the study reach the final stages of maturation, it’s still not clear to scientists whether they could be used to form a healthy embryo. Professor Telfer added that there is still significant progress to be made in the research, as well as in the regulatory process, before they can attempt to use the eggs in fertilisation. Despite this, the team has confirmed they are focusing on “optimising” their techniques and most experts agree it’s a “seminal advance”.

According to Dr Channa Jayasena, a member of the Society for Endocrinology and clinical senior lecturer at Imperial College London, who was not involved with the research “This is an elegant piece of work, demonstrating for the first time that human eggs can be grown to maturity in a laboratory. It would take several years to translate this into a therapy. However, this is an important breakthrough, which could offer hope to women with infertility in the future.”

Dr. Ali Abbara, a senior clinical lecturer in endocrinology at Imperial College London and a member of the Society for Endocrinology said that this research “suggests that we may be able to grow eggs from ovarian tissue, all the way from early stages to later development stages, ready for fertilization by sperm; and that this process could be achieved outside of the human body”

He added: “However, the technology remains at an early stage, and much more work is needed to make sure that the technique is safe and optimised before we ascertain whether these eggs remain normal during the process, and can be fertilized to form embryos that could lead to healthy babies. Still, this early data suggests that this may well be feasible in the future.”

However, David Albertini, a co-author of the study and director of the Division of Laboratories at the Center for Human Reproduction in New York noted that the eggs still showed some abnormalities, and that further research needs to be carried out before it can be used on patients. “It was pretty amazing that we got any eggs out of this at the end of the day, and what that tells us as scientists is that we’re beginning to understand exactly what are the limitations”, he said.

He added: “When we really examine these eggs, we could tell that there were a lot of things wrong with them, but by knowing what’s wrong with them, then that allows us to go back and refine the technology. Hopefully, as this work continues, we will see some of these abnormalities disappear in terms of the quality of the eggs that we get.”

“This is a technological breakthrough for those of us who are interested in understanding how the ovary works and how it impacts a woman’s fertility. This is a research triumph that opens new doors for us to understand how a human egg develops. I think we’re a good five to 10 years away from seeing this applied clinically. We have a lot of work to do to — number one, improve the efficiency of this procedure, that is the in-vitro development of human eggs — but we also have a lot of work to do in terms of improving the quality of the eggs that come out.”

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