New Hope for Infertile Women: Healthy Eggs

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About 6.7 million American women suffer from infertility, 1% of whom struggle to get pregnant because of poor-quality eggs.

Most of these women, whose ovaries don’t produce the regular amounts of estrogen needed to nurture and develop healthy eggs every month, will enter menopause before they turn 40. But researchers from Stanford University have developed a technique that could help them to overcome their ovarian insufficiency by supporting the follicles to produce healthy, mature eggs again.

(MORE: How Healthy Are IVF Babies?)

Using a process called in vitro activation (IVA), the scientists take an ovary, or piece of ovarian tissue, and treat it outside the body with proteins and other factors that normally prompt immature follicles to mature into eggs. The recharged tissue is then reimplanted into the women’s ovaries. Among the 27 women who volunteered in the small study, five were able to produce viable eggs, one is pregnant, and another gave birth to a healthy baby.

The process, which the scientists described in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is meant to “awaken” the follicles that failed to develop properly.

(MORE: Frontiers of Fertility)

Although the study was small, the team is optimistic that it could be used to help infertile women who previously had to rely on egg donors to become pregnant, and that it might be expanded to aid women whose follicles were affected by chemotherapy treatments for cancer as well. Two of the women are waiting for an embryo transfer.

“The women and their partners come to me in tears. To suddenly learn at a young age that your childbearing potential is gone is very difficult,” said Dr. Valerie Baker, the director of Stanford’s Program for Primary Ovarian Insufficiency, in a statement. “This technique could potentially help women who have lost their egg supply for any reason.”

Andrew La Barbera, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s scientific director, says the research is exciting for women with ovarian insufficiency who want to conceive using their own eggs. Experts had previously thought that women with the condition did not have viable eggs, but the breakthrough suggests that it may be just a matter of stimulating them in the right way. “All of the patients had evidence of pre-existing follicles in the ovarian fragments that were harvested. That makes this paper all the more interesting scientifically because it suggests that primary ovarian insufficiency might not be due to simply ‘running out of follicles’ but rather might be due to inadequate stimulation,” he says. And this enhanced understanding of how human follicles develop and mature could also lead to other improvements in fertility treatments that could affect millions more women who struggle to start a family of their own.