IVF breakthrough gives women with fertility issues new hope

Oct 22, 2015 at 2:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Sebastian Kaulitzki, Science Photo Library

Researchers have made a major fertility breakthrough that could see women in their late thirties and beyond having their eggs “regenerated” to improve their quality.

The world-first discovery, led by Dr. Hannah Brown at the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute, could be just what the doctor ordered for countless women worldwide who are struggling to conceive.

Dr. Brown and her team seem to have found a simple solution for a complicated problem.

During their research of older eggs, they found that haemoglobin, which is known for giving red blood cells their colour, was present in "good" eggs, but was missing from lower quality or broken eggs.

“The haemoglobin inside the eggs made them more efficient and looks like it alters the way the egg uses energy and the amount of energy the egg needs to use,” Dr. Brown says.

“When we added the haemoglobin to bad eggs and then fertilised those eggs (via IVF) — we got more healthy embryos. We improved the quality of the eggs.”

She stressed that the breakthrough is still “in its earliest phases” as, so far, trials in Australia have been carried out successfully in mice.

Dr. Brown has been collaborating with a team in Belgium, which has begun testing the new discovery with human embryos. Australian legislation does not permit human studies on embryos; however, in Europe, women are legally allowed to donate eggs for scientific purposes.

The trials offer new hope for parents struggling to conceive worldwide, particularly those who are in their late thirties or older, when egg quality declines.

For some women, however, it may be a case of "too little, too late".

Vigorous testing will be carried out and if the results continue to prove successful, a procedure to inject haemoglobin into eggs during IVF could become a viable option.

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However, it is unlikely to be available to fertility patients for about five years, Dr. Brown says.

“The next step would be to do (the research) in a large animal model in pigs or cows (in Adelaide), where we can test the safety and ethicality and make sure there are no problems with the offspring,” she says.

“We know fertility starts declining at age 32 and between 37 and 42 your eggs are in dramatic decline and the ones you have left are of poor quality. Potentially, this (discovery) offers… an opportunity that might not exist now.”

With such an incredible discovery on her CV, we weren't surprised to learn that this week Dr. Brown was announced as the 2015 winner of the Women’s and Children’s Hospital Foundation Young Investigator Award, which recognises excellence in science and science communication.