Women who want to become pregnant but do not ovulate – whether because of premature menopause or some other condition – have few choices today aside from using eggs surgically harvested from another woman.
In the future, however, thanks to Israeli research, it may be possible to generate human eggs from amniotic membrane cells taken from the placenta – the protective afterbirth normally discarded after a baby is born.
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The first-of-its-kind discovery was made by Technion-Israel Institute of Technology doctoral student Ayelet Evron under the mentorship of Dr. Eliezer Shalev, dean of the medical school and a practicing obstetrician/gynecologist at Emek Medical Center in Afula. The experiments were carried out with Dr. Shulamit Goldman of Emek Medical Center’s Laboratory for Research in Reproductive Sciences.
Replicating the egg-making recipe
Amniotic membrane cells arise about eight days after conception. Their job is to preserve the plasticity of an embryo’s cells before they differentiate. Evron and Shalev found that these cells also have the ability to differentiate into ones that express the properties of the germ cells that produce eggs in a woman’s ovaries.
Ordinarily, the germ cells remain undifferentiated until a female reaches puberty because they cannot turn into eggs without the action of proteins or hormones that begin to surround the ovaries of girls in adolescence.
The researchers, who published their work last month in the journal Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology, are now attempting to replicate the conditions present in adolescents. Theoretically, they could produce human eggs by adding the right recipe of proteins or hormones to the differentiated amniotic cells.
“Germ cell development has been difficult to study in humans because important early events occur after implantation [of the fertilized egg],” said Shalev. In addition, the study of germ cell development in humans is challenging because ethical issues can be involved in harvesting these cells.
He stressed that though they have discovered the principle behind this advance in human reproduction, “it is too early to know when this will be achieved.”
But if the principle can someday be put into practice successfully, he added, “women who do not produce healthy ova — or any at all — could use them to become pregnant.”
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