Advancing motherhood: 5 inspirational women fertility scientists

As moms across Sweden, France and French-speaking Africa prepare to celebrate the last Mother’s Day of May, DiscovHER portrays five scientists who have greatly contributed to understanding and helping solve the global problem of infertility.

Ovarian tissue grafting: Kate Stern

When a young person is diagnosed with cancer, the initial shock is followed by fears of what impact treatment will have on their future fertility. Head of the fertility preservation service at Melbourne IVF and The Women’s Hospital, Dr. Kate Stern’s work has enabled a cancer survivor to conceive despite having had her ovaries removed. After performing Australia’s first ovarian tissue grafting procedure in 2014, Stern achieved the first clinical pregnancy from so-called heterotopic transplantation – where ovarian tissue is grafted at an alternative site, in this particular case, the woman’s abdomen. This provides new optimism for women who have had their ovaries removed or undergone pelvic surgery.

Don’t call it three-Parent IVF: Paula Amato

Associate professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the Oregon Health and Science University, Paula Amato worked on the research team behind a gene therapy IVF technique intended to prevent inherited mitochondrial dysfunction - a known cause of a number of serious diseases. The process, controversially known as “three-parent IVF,” is intended to prevent the mutations some women carry in their mitochondrial DNA (mitochondria are the cells’ power supply) from being passed onto their children. The technique takes the nuclear DNA from one woman with unhealthy mitochondria and the healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor, plus the sperm from the father, effectively resulting in three biological parents. While the discovery has sparked intense ethical debate – invoking the term “designer babies” - this February, politicians in the UK voted to license the technique, the first country to do so.

The first artificial human ovary: Sandra Carson

A professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Brown University, Sandra Carson didn’t set out to build an artificial organ – rather a research environment, a living laboratory. “An ovary is composed of three main cell types, and this is the first time that anyone has created a 3-D tissue structure with triple cell line,” she explains. While research is on-going, Carson and her team hopes the development could help preserve fertility for women facing chemotherapy or other treatments by enabling immature eggs to be frozen before their treatment, and then matured artificially. A further use could include studying the effects of toxins on the ovarian cycle.

Delivering India’s first IVF baby: Indira Hinduja

Hailed as the first female IVF and infertility expert in India, Indira Hinduja delivered the country’s first so-called “test-tube baby” in 1986. Specialized in infertility, Assisted Reproductive Technologies, Embryology and Stem cells, Hinduja has continued to pioneer infertility treatments for women across India ever since. Her work also resulted in India’s first baby born via Gamete Intrafallopian Transfer, an assisted reproductive technique which differs from IVF as fertilization occurs in a woman’s fallopian tubes rather than a laboratory.

The weight-fertility link: Rose Epstein Frisch

It’s said that grateful runners named their daughters Rose after the visionary American scientist whose discovery helped them understand they needed to slow down to fall pregnant. In a research paper in 1974, Epstein Frisch showed how a women’s fertility is affected by her body fat, showing that a minimum stock of energy is needed for ovulation and menstrual cycles. Her hypothesis, summed up in her book Female Fertility and the Body Fat Connection, described as “one of the most simple and elegant theories in biology,” was confirmed by the eventual discovery of leptin, the hormone that regulates body weight. At a time when “menstruation” was practically a dirty word in science’s predominantly male circles, Epstein Frisch, who died earlier this year, was a pioneer.

Between them these scientists have helped – or will in the future help- thousands of women to become moms. What will the assisted fertility technologies of tomorrow entail – and are we ready for the ethical implications? Have your say at @4womeninscience.

For Women in Science

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