Infertility affects about one in six Australian couples of reproductive age, and a staggering five per cent of children born in Australia result from IVF treatment. Many factors impact fertility including poor egg quality – a key research area undertaken by Professor Hayden Homer, the Christopher Chen Chair in Reproductive Biology at the UQ Centre for Clinical Research (UQCCR).
In his recent Global Leadership Series presentation, Professor Homer shared his vision of a future where a single pill could improve egg quality.
“At the centre of pregnancy is the egg, and egg quality is crucial for pregnancy success. The embryo is only as good as the egg is good.
“Unfortunately, egg quality reduces with female age, so by the mid-thirties, pregnancy success begins to decline quite sharply. This is because of the decline in egg quality from the middle of the third decade.
“You can completely reverse that decline in fertility using eggs from younger donors, underlining how important egg quality is for pregnancy success. However, this isn’t an ideal solution because offspring won’t have your genetic makeup.”
According to Professor Homer, improving egg quality is the ‘holy grail’ of research in reproductive medicine, and has become important as women delay child bearing. To prepare for pregnancy, eggs undergo a growth stage which lasts approximately three months and are key to supporting embryo development.
“A key component that accumulates during the egg’s growth phase to support embryo development is based on mitochondria – the cells that generate the energy.
“Energy is key for any cell to go through its natural processes and it is especially important in eggs because eggs supply all of the embryo’s mitochondria. None of it comes from the sperm.
“Mitochondria is absolutely essential to egg quality and embryo development. A central aspect of the prevailing model of egg ageing is that egg quality goes down because the number of mitochondria declines and the efficiency goes down as well.
“There’s a lot of interest in improving the mitochondria load in eggs as a way to improve egg quality.”
In response, Professor Homer’s team is studying a family of anti-ageing proteins known as sirtuins, and chemicals contained in the skin of red grapes contains chemicals that activate them. Sirtuins increase longevity and life span by increasing the number and health of mitochondria.
“Sirtuins are activated by a co-factor called NAD and it turns out that we can administer NAD precursors as a tablet or as an oral agent, and increase sirtuin activity. If that’s the case then these agents should also have a beneficial effect on eggs.
“In summary, increasing sirtuin activity into old age could basically stave off the adverse impact of ageing on female fertility.
“We could be on the cusp of having a pill that could theoretically boost this potent pathway and reverse infertility in older women.”
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