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Anamaria C Herta, Francesca Lolicato, and Johan E J Smitz

The currently available assisted reproduction techniques for fertility preservation (i.e. in vitro maturation (IVM) and in vitro fertilization) are insufficient as stand-alone procedures as only few reproductive cells can be conserved with these techniques. Oocytes in primordial follicles are well suited to survive the cryopreservation procedure and of use as valuable starting material for fertilization, on the condition that these could be grown up to fully matured oocytes. Our understanding of the biological mechanisms directing primordial follicle activation has increased over the last years and this knowledge has paved the way toward clinical applications. New multistep in vitro systems are making use of purified precursor cells and extracellular matrix components and by applying bio-printing technologies, an adequate follicular niche can be built. IVM of human oocytes is clinically applied in patients with polycystic ovary/polycystic ovary syndrome; related knowhow could become useful for fertility preservation and for patients with maturation failure and follicle-stimulating hormone resistance. The expectations from the research on human ovarian tissue and immature oocytes cultures, in combination with the improved vitrification methods, are high as these technologies can offer realistic potential for fertility preservation.

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Benjamin Fisch and Ronit Abir

Anti-cancer therapy, particularly chemotherapy, damages ovarian follicles and promotes ovarian failure. The only pharmacological means for protecting the ovaries from chemotherapy-induced injury is gonadotrophin-releasing hormone agonist, but its efficiency remains controversial; ovarian transposition is used to shield the ovary from radiation when indicated. Until the late 1990s, the only option for fertility preservation and restoration in women with cancer was embryo cryopreservation. The development of other assisted reproductive technologies such as mature oocyte cryopreservation and in vitro maturation of oocytes has contributed to fertility preservation. Treatment regimens to obtain mature oocytes/embryos have been modified to overcome various limitations of conventional ovarian stimulation protocols. In the last decades, several centres have begun cryopreserving ovarian samples containing primordial follicles from young patients before anti-cancer therapy. The first live birth following implantation of cryopreserved-thawed ovarian tissue was reported in 2004; since then, the number has risen to more than 130. Nowadays, ovarian tissue cryopreservation can be combined with in vitro maturation and vitrification of oocytes. The use of cryopreserved oocytes eliminates the risk posed by ovarian implantation of reseeding the cancer. Novel methods for enhancing follicular survival after implantation are presently being studied. In addition, researchers are currently investigating agents for ovarian protection. It is expected that the risk of reimplantation of malignant cells with ovarian grafts will be overcome with the putative development of an artificial ovary and an efficient follicle class- and species-dependent in vitro system for culturing primordial follicles.

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K Hardy, C Wright, S Rice, M Tachataki, R Roberts, D Morgan, S Spanos, and D Taylor

The advent of human in vitro fertilization (IVF) over 30 years ago has made the oocyte and preimplantation embryo uniquely accessible. This accessibility has given rise to new micromanipulation techniques, such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection for treatment of male infertility, as well as embryo biopsy for preimplantation diagnosis of both genetic disease and aneuploidy, a major cause of early embryo demise and miscarriage. In the UK, average pregnancy rates after IVF and embryo transfer are < 25%, even after transfer of several embryos. Unfortunately, a third of these pregnancies involve multiple gestations. Research is currently focusing on methods to improve IVF success rates while reducing twin and triplet pregnancies and their associated increased morbidity and mortality. One approach is to develop screening methods to identify the most viable embryos, so that transfer of fewer healthy embryos will result in a higher proportion of singleton pregnancies. Screening methods include optimizing culture conditions for prolonged culture and selection of viable blastocysts for transfer, or embryo biopsy and aneuploidy screening. Assisted reproduction is also increasingly important in other branches of medicine: survival rates for cancer sufferers are improving continually and there is now a significant need for approaches to preserve fertility after sterilizing chemo-and radiotherapy treatment. Techniques for cryopreserving male and female gametes or gonadal tissue are being developed, although systems to grow and mature these gametes are in their infancy. Finally, there are also concerns regarding the safety of these new assisted reproductive technologies.

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Darren K Griffin and Cagri Ogur

Designed to minimize chances of transferring genetically abnormal embryos, preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) involves in vitro fertilization (IVF), embryo biopsy, diagnosis and selective embryo transfer. Preimplantation genetic testing for aneuploidy (PGT-A) aims to avoid miscarriage and live born trisomic offspring and to improve IVF success. Diagnostic approaches include fluorescence in situ hybridization (FISH) and more contemporary comprehensive chromosome screening (CCS) including array comparative genomic hybridization (aCGH), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (PCR), next-generation sequencing (NGS) and karyomapping. NGS has an improved dynamic range, and karyomapping can detect chromosomal and monogenic disorders simultaneously. Mosaicism (commonplace in human embryos) can arise by several mechanisms; those arising initially meiotically (but with a subsequent post-zygotic ‘trisomy rescue’ event) usually lead to adverse outcomes, whereas the extent to which mosaics that are initially chromosomally normal (but then arise purely post-zygotically) can lead to unaffected live births is uncertain. Polar body (PB) biopsy is the least common sampling method, having drawbacks including cost and inability to detect any paternal contribution. Historically, cleavage-stage (blastomere) biopsy has been the most popular; however, higher abnormality levels, mosaicism and potential for embryo damage have led to it being superseded by blastocyst (trophectoderm – TE) biopsy, which provides more cells for analysis. Improved biopsy, diagnosis and freeze-all strategies collectively have the potential to revolutionize PGT-A, and there is increasing evidence of their combined efficacy. Nonetheless, PGT-A continues to attract criticism, prompting questions of when we consider the evidence base sufficient to justify routine PGT-A? Basic biological research is essential to address unanswered questions concerning the chromosome complement of human embryos, and we thus entreat companies, governments and charities to fund more. This will benefit both IVF patients and prospective parents at risk of aneuploid offspring following natural conception. The aim of this review is to appraise the ‘state of the art’ in terms of PGT-A, including the controversial areas, and to suggest a practical ‘way forward’ in terms of future diagnosis and applied research.

Free access

Loro L Kujjo and Gloria I Perez

Maternal aging adversely affects oocyte quality (function and developmental potential) and consequently lowers pregnancy rates while increasing spontaneous abortions. Substantial evidence, especially from egg donation studies, implicates the decreased quality of an aging oocyte as a major factor in the etiology of female infertility. Nevertheless, the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for the decreased oocyte quality with advanced maternal aging are not fully characterized. Herein we present information in the published literature and our own data to support the hypothesis that during aging induced decreases in mitochondrial ceramide levels and associated alterations in mitochondrial structure and function are prominent elements contributing to reduced oocyte quality. Hence, by examining the molecular determinants that underlie impairments in oocyte mitochondria, we expect to sieve to a better understanding of the mechanistic anatomy of oocyte aging.

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Alan H Handyside

The first pregnancies and live births following in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and preimplantation genetic testing (PGT), formerly known as preimplantation genetic diagnosis, were reported in 1990, almost 30 years ago, in several couples at risk of X-linked inherited conditions, which typically only affect boys inheriting the X chromosome with the affected gene from their carrier mothers. At that time, it was only possible to identify the sex of the embryo by amplifying a Y-linked repeat sequence in single cells biopsied at cleavage stages and avoid the transfer of males, half of which would be affected. The extensive publicity surrounding these cases and the perceived risk of using IVF and PGT for desirable characteristics not related to health, such as sex selection, led to the epithet of ‘designer babies’ which continues to resonate to this day. Here, I briefly reflect on how the technology of PGT has evolved over the decades and whether it deserves this reputation. With efficient methods for whole genome amplification and the genomic revolution, we now have highly accurate universal tests that combine marker-based diagnosis of almost any monogenic disorder with the detection of aneuploidy. PGT is now clinically well established and is likely to remain a valuable alternative for couples at risk of having affected children.

Free access

Jens Ehmcke and Stefan Schlatt

Fertility preservation in the male is routinely focused on sperm. In clinical and veterinary settings, cryopreservation of sperm is a widely used tool. However, the goals for male fertility preservation differ between experimental models, maintenance of livestock, conservation of rare species, and fertility protection in men. Therefore very different approaches exist, which are adapted to the specialized needs for each discipline. Novel tools for male fertility preservation are explored targeting immature germ cells in embryonic or immature testes. Many options might be developed to combine germline preservation and generation of sperm ex vivo leading to interesting new perspectives. This review highlights current and future options for male fertility preservation with a special focus on animal models and a consideration of the various disciplines in need of novel tools.

Free access

Imene Boumela, Said Assou, Abdel Aouacheria, Delphine Haouzi, Hervé Dechaud, John De Vos, Alan Handyside, and Samir Hamamah

In women, up to 99.9% of the oocyte stockpile formed during fetal life is decimated by apoptosis. Apoptotic features are also detected in human preimplantation embryos both in vivo and in vitro. Despite the important consequences of cell death processes to oocyte competence and early embryonic development, little is known about its genetic and molecular control. B cell lymphoma-2 (BCL2) family proteins are major regulators of cell death and survival. Here, we present a literature review on BCL2 family expression and protein distribution in human and animal oocytes and early embryos. Most of the studies focused on the expression of two antagonistic members: the founding and survival family member BCL2 and its proapoptotic homolog BAX. However, recent transcriptomic analyses have identified novel candidate genes related to oocyte and/or early embryonic viability (such as BCL2L10) or commitment to apoptosis (e.g. BIK). Interestingly, some BCL2 proteins appear to be differentially distributed at the subcellular level during oocyte maturation and early embryonic development, a process probably linked to the functional compartmentalization of the ooplasm and blastomere. Assessment of BCL2 family involvement in regulating the survival of human oocytes and embryos may be of particular value for diagnosis and assisted reproductive technology. We suggest that implications of not only aberrant gene expression but also abnormal subcellular protein redistribution should be established in pathological conditions resulting in infertility.

Free access

R Gosden and M Nagano

Individuals may regard reproduction as optional but sufficient number of them must be productive to perpetuate the species. The reproductive system is surprisingly vulnerable and depends, among other things, on a limited endowment of oocytes, controlled proliferation of spermatogonial stem cells and the genetic integrity of both. The developmental competence of oocytes and spermatogonial stem cells is maintained by evolved mechanisms for cellular detoxification and genomic stability, and excess or damaged cells are eliminated by apoptosis. Gonadal failure as a result of germ cell depletion can occur at any age, and from the effects of chemical cytotoxicity, disease and infection as well as genetic predisposition. Among extrinsic factors, alkylating agents and ionizing radiation are important causes of iatrogenic gonadal failure in young women and men. In animal models, there is evidence that hormonal manipulation, deletion of genes involved in apoptotic pathways and dietary manipulation can protect against natural and induced germ cell loss, but evidence in humans is absent or unclear. Assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) provide an ensemble of strategies for preserving fertility in patients and commercially valuable or endangered species. Semen cryopreservation was the first technology for preserving male fertility, but this cannot serve prepubertal boys, for whom banking of testicular biopsies may provide a future option. In sterilized rodents, cryopreserved spermatogonial stem cells can recolonize seminiferous tubules and reinitiate spermatogenesis, and subcutaneous implantation of intact tubules can generate spermatozoa for fertilization in vitro by intracytoplasmic sperm injection. Transplantation of frozen-banked ovarian tissue is well-established for restoring cyclicity and fertility and is currently undergoing clinical evaluation for cancer patients. When restoration of natural fertility is unnecessary or reimplantation is unsafe, it is desirable to culture the germ cells from thawed tissue in vitro until they reach the stage at which they can be fertilized. Low temperature banking of immature germ cells is potentially very versatile, but storage of embryos and, to a lesser extent, mature oocytes is already practised in a number of species, including humans, and is likely to remain a mainstay for fertility preservation.

Free access

R A Anderson, W H B Wallace, and D T Baird

Female fertility preservation provides significantly different challenges to that for the male, with the only established method being cryopreservation of embryos thus necessitating the involvement of a male. Other, experimental, options include oocyte or ovarian tissue cryopreservation. The latter has been regarded as a potential method for more than a decade, but has resulted in the birth of only five babies. It is not possible to be certain how many women have had ovarian tissue cryopreserved. Oocyte cryopreservation also remains experimental, but ∼100-fold more babies have been born through this technique over the last two decades. Ovarian tissue cryopreservation has the potential advantages of preservation of a large number of oocytes within primordial follicles, it does not require hormonal stimulation when time is short and indeed may be appropriate for the pre-pubertal. Disadvantages include the need for an invasive procedure, and the uncertain risk of ovarian contamination in haematological and other malignancies. We here review this approach in the context of our own experience of 36 women, highlighting issues of patient selection especially in the young, and uncertainties over the effects of cancer treatments on subsequent fertility. Of these 36 women, 11 have died but 5 have had spontaneous pregnancies. So far, none have requested reimplantation of their stored ovarian tissue. Ovarian cryopreservation appears to be a potentially valuable method for fertility preservation, but the indications and approaches best used remain unclear.