Lab-Made Eggs Could Provide Answer to Infertility

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Infertility can be heart-breaking for couples hoping to conceive. While in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and other options can help matters, the procedures are often prohibitively expensive and out of reach for many families. Now new research indicates that hope may be on the horizon. A group of researchers believe that they have a developed a method that can create eggs.

"While conventional hormone replacement therapy is able to maintain female sexual characteristics, it's unable to restore ovarian tissue function, which includes the production of eggs," the study's authors reported in a statement.

Researchers believe that 10 percent of pre-menopausal women suffer from infertility, meaning that they try to get pregnant for a year without any success. The condition can be caused by various events and factors, like injury, ovarian operations or radiation therapy for cancer. The most common cause of infertility in women of childbearing age is polycystic ovarian syndrome, a disorder triggered by abnormal hormone levels and that leads to irregular ovulation and higher levels of male hormones.

Dr. Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and the chair of the Urology Department at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, led the study. First, the surgeons removed cells from the ovaries of three-week-old rats. The rats would be about the equivalent of 25-year-old human women. Afterwards, the cells were put in a culture of nutrient-rich growth factors over the course of a week. Next, the cells were set in a collagen gel that would allow them to grow three-dimensionally instead of in a single layer. At this point the researchers assessed the cells for gene expression, hormone production and growth.

In these early observations, Atala and his team noticed the creation of immature egg cells in the clusters. They believe that the egg cells could successfully mature into babies. In humans, they say, they could either put created eggs into a human woman in order for it to fertilization to occur through natural ovulation and conception, or they could simply fertilize the egg in-vitro and implant the fertilized egg into the woman. Because ovarian cell function would be made good as new, women would not need to take any additional hormone replacement therapy.

All sorts of legal and ethical questions will need to be answered if such a procedure is implemented commercially, but they do not need to be answered now. The team says that they are a long way away from trials in humans.

The study was presented at the 2012 American College of Surgeons Annual Clinical Congress.

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