Females have a fixed number of eggs from birth that are depleted by the time of menopause. The finding, published today in the journal Nature Medicine, challenges the belief that their ovaries can’t make more. The research was led by Jonathan Tilly, the director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Vincent Center for Reproductive Biology.
Tilly reported in 2004 that ovarian stem cells in mice create new eggs, or oocytes, in a way similar to how stem cells in male testes produce sperm throughout a man’s life. His latest work, if reproduced, would suggest the same is true for human ovaries, potentially pointing at new ways to aid fertility by delaying when the ovaries stop functioning.
“The 50-year-old belief in our field wasn’t actually based on data proving it was impossible, or not ongoing,” Tilly said in a telephone interview. “It was simply an assumption made because there was no evidence indicating otherwise. We have human cells that can produce new oocytes.”
In the study, healthy ovaries were obtained from consenting patients undergoing sex reassignment surgery. The researchers were able to identify ovarian stem cells because they express a rare protein that’s only seen in reproductive cells.
The stem cells from the ovaries were injected into human ovarian tissue that was then grafted under the skin of mice, which provided the blood supply that enabled growth. Within two weeks, early stage human follicles with oocytes had formed.
A female is most endowed with oocytes, or eggs, as a fetus, when she has about 7 million. That number that drops to 1 million by birth, and around 300,000 by puberty. By menopause, the number is zero. Since the 1950’s, scientists thought that ovarian stem cells capable of producing new eggs are only active during fetal development.
“This paper essentially opens the door to the ability to control oocyte development in human ovaries,” Tilly said.
About 10 percent of women of child-bearing age in the U.S., or 6.1 million, have difficulty getting pregnant or staying pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most cases of female infertility are caused by problems with ovulation, hormone imbalance or age.
The study by Tilley and his colleagues offers “a new model system for understanding the human egg cell,” said David F. Albertini, director of the Center for Reproductive Services and professor in the department of molecular and integrative physiology at Kansas University, in a telephone interview.
Still, “there’s a long way to go before this has real practical applications. I’ve spent 35 years of my life studying egg cells and this is a cell that is at least as complicated as a neuron in the brain, if not more,” Albertini said.
The work needs to be reproduced and expanded by other scientists “to make it into something that will make us confident the cells are safe to use and we could actually use them to repopulate an egg-depleted ovary,” he said.
Tilly’s team is exploring the development of an ovarian stem-cell bank that can be cryogenically frozen and thawed without damage, unlike human eggs, he said. The researchers are also working to identify hormones and other growth factors for accelerating production of eggs from human ovarian stem cells and ways to improve in-vitro fertilization.
“The problem we face with IVF is we don’t have many eggs to work with,” he said. “These cells are renewable. If we are successful -- and it’s a big if -- in generating functioning eggs from these cells, we can generate as many eggs as we need to on a per patient basis.”
Tilly is also collaborating with researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the U.K. to determine whether the oocytes can be developed into fully mature human eggs for fertilizing. The U.S bans creating or fertilizing embryos for experimental purposes, he said.
A company Tilly co-founded, Boston-based OvaScience Inc., has licensed the technology for potential commercial applications.
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