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Revolutionary breakthrough to ease discomfort and cost of fertility treatment

Newborn baby

Photo credit: iStock

Associate Professor Robert Gilchrist

University of New South Wales | 2014 | $1,158,292

For many Australians, in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) is sometimes the only option for those seeking to build a family.  This includes hormone therapies and invasive monitoring, which can often lead to medical complications and high prices. Scientists from Australia and Belgium have advanced an existing treatment that is less invasive and more cost effective.

Led by UNSW’s School of Women’s and Children’s Health Associate Professor Robert Gilchrist, an international team of researchers have improved an existing treatment known as in-vitro maturation (IVM).

IVM is different from standard IVF treatment as it retrieves the eggs at an immature stage, bringing them to maturity in the laboratory. This means fertility drugs, such as follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH), are not required to stimulate egg cell growth before collection. Patients also need less monitoring, meaning fewer blood tests and ultrasounds.

‘The aim of our research has been to restore as far as possible, the natural processes that occurs during egg maturation,’ said Professor Gilchrist.

‘We have demonstrated that it is possible to improve egg quality and embryo yield with next to no drugs, using potent growth factors produced by the egg.’

This project has built a strong partnership between Professor Gilchrist, the University of Adelaide (Professor Gilchrist’s previous base), Belgium’s UZ Brussel at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) and Cook Medical in Indiana, United States.

Video source: YouTube - UNSWTV Sydney

University of Adelaide Associate Professor Jeremy Thompson said the new treatment is a major development in fertility research.

‘While the enhanced IVM treatment is not currently available as a fertility treatment option, if it is accepted into clinical practice it will remove the need for a woman to inject herself with high doses of hormones for up to 12 days,’ he said.

‘Most importantly, it could give a woman almost the same chance of becoming pregnant as with hormone-stimulated IVF.’

Professor De Vos of UZ Brussel said this breakthrough will also benefit, ‘young women facing cancer treatment, who wish to preserve their fertility but often don’t have time to freeze their eggs.’

‘The use of IVM also reduces the risk of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) to zero.’

Ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS) can occur in some women when taking fertility medication to stimulate egg growth. This can cause the ovaries to become swollen and painful.

The team are currently conducting safety studies with mice to ensure that adjusting the conditions of egg maturation using this enhanced IVM does not affect the long-term health of the offspring.

While the treatment is still in its early days and is unlikely to be on offer any time soon, it does represent an important advance in fertility research. Cook Medical will run the preclinical trial phase and pending approval by the Australian Therapeutic Goods Administration and the United States Food and Drug Administration, the treatment could be available for women within three to five years.

This research was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, The Flemish Government Agencies Flanders Innovation & Entrepreneurship (VLAIO) and Research Foundation-Flanders (FWO) and by research grants from Cook Medical.