In 2012, the biologist Jonathan Tilly and his team of Harvard researchers announced that they had found some precursor stem cells in female eggs.
In April 2015, Zain Rajani was born in Canada, the first baby to be born using the technique discovered by Tilly in 2012.
The news story, published in TIME magazine, explains how stem cells inserted into healthy eggs can still divide and thus help improve the egg quality of older women.
The company OvaScience, which conducted the research, explains that mitochondria are the cell’s powerhouse, a molecular battery that powers everything the cell does.
Mitochondria are abundant in young bodies but with age their functionality and activity decreases. This could help explain more about female fertility. In a young woman, the egg has more active mitochondria than the eggs of older women. Following his discovery in 2012, Tilly separated out the stem cells and removed the mitochondria from them. These mitochondria were then injected into the eggs of women who had not been able to get pregnant through IVF treatment. Increasing the number of mitochondria helped achieve higher activity and ultimately increased egg quality.
This new technique is known as Augment IVF treatment. It is based on the hypothesis that a low number of mitochondria causes the egg to be of lower quality, which means that it cannot be properly fertilised.
However, this experimental technique is controversial and is not accepted by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration), as processing mitochondria has been categorised as ‘gene therapy’.
Until today this therapy has been used in four countries on three dozen women, of which eight are currently pregnant. The technique is still experimental and further results are needed as well as the response from the scientific community. Meanwhile, we continue in the hope that science will gradually find ways of improving female fertility.