Scottish scientists believe new and improved fertility treatments could arise from a landmark study which saw human eggs grown from their earliest stage to full maturity in laboratory conditions.
The team at the University of Edinburgh removed egg cells from ovary tissue at the earliest stage of development, before growing them to the point at which they were ready to be fertilised.
The breakthrough could safeguard the fertility of girls and women who have cancer ahead of potentially harmful treatment such as chemotherapy.
In previous studies, scientists developed mouse eggs to produce live offspring and matured human eggs from a relatively late stage of development.
But the latest study saw immature cells placed in a liquid culture in one of the university’s laboratories before being transferred to a nutrient-rich membrane, allowing them to reach full growth.
As a result of the advance, eggs recovered from patients’ ovarian tissue could be matured in the lab and stored for later fertilisation. Conventionally, cancer patients can have a piece of ovary removed before treatment, but reimplanting this tissue can risk reintroducing cancer.
Professor Evelyn Telfer, personal chair in reproductive biology at the university’s school of biological sciences, said: “Being able to fully develop human eggs in the lab could widen the scope of available fertility treatments.
“We are now working on optimising the conditions that support egg development in this way and studying how healthy they are. We also hope to find out, subject to regulatory approval, whether they can be fertilised.”
Aileen Feeney, chief executive of Fertility Network UK, said: “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.”
Martin Ledwick, Cancer Research UK’s head cancer information nurse, said: “Fertility preservation is an important issue for many patients whose treatment could leave them infertile. It’s good to see research into new ways that might maintain fertility.
“But this work is at an early stage so it’s not yet clear whether it might be useful for people in the future.”
He added: “For patients who are thinking about their options for fertility preservation, it’s important they’re able to have a full discussion with their doctor about the different options, how likely these are to be successful and, in some instances, any potential risks.”
The study, published in the Molecular Human Reproduction journal, was carried out in collaboration with the Royal Infirmary Edinburgh, the Centre for Human Reproduction in New York and the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh. It was funded by the Medical Research Council.