UK Embryo research projects focus on improving IVF treatments

An HFEA report published today reveals that most human embryo research projects in the UK last year focused on better understanding of embryo development to improve fertility treatments. 

'Human Embryo Research in the UK' provides an overview of research projects licensed by the HFEA in 2006–07. Of the 36 projects operating during that period, 64% (23) were licensed for the purpose of understanding embryo development. UK researchers were also licensed to investigate:

  • the treatment of infertility – 19 projects (53%)
  • treatments for serious disease – 15 projects (42%)
  • detecting gene or chromosome abnormalities in embryos – 9 projects (25%)
  • the causes of miscarriages – 8 projects (22%)
  •  the causes of congenital disease – 5 projects (14%)

A project may be licensed for more than one research purpose, depending on the nature of the study. The report includes background information on eight areas of research including:

  • Embryo development
    How to improve culture conditions and devise diagnostic methods that will allow the transfer of single, healthy embryos with a high chance of giving rise to a pregnancy thus minimising the risks of multiple births.
  • Storage/freezing
    Investigating new methods of storing embryos and eggs with the aim of decreasing the risks of damage with this procedure and thus increase the chance of having a baby following treatment with frozen/thawed eggs or embryos.
  • Egg activation
    Two studies are investigating the very early events occurring in fertilisation about which little is currently understood. 
  • In vitro maturation (IVM)
    Research into IVM to determine whether embryos created from in vitro matured eggs are healthy and develop normally by comparing eggs matured in the laboratory with in vivo matured eggs.

Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), mitochondrial disease, human embryonic stem cells and cell nuclear replacement were also studied.

The 36 projects include four new research licences applied for and granted by the HFEA during 2006–07. A further two licence applications related to hybrid embryos.  An HFEA Licence Committee started consideration of these in November and they will be considered further in the New Year.

Alan Doran, Interim Chief Executive of the HFEA said:

"We know that UK scientists believe research on human embryos makes a significant contribution to the development of better fertility treatments. But, as this report shows, research isn't just about looking for new, cutting-edge techniques. The focus on understanding of the basics of human embryo development aims to improve the efficacy and safety of existing treatments. This, alongside improved diagnosis and treatment of disease, may ultimately improve the success of fertility and related medical treatments."


Notes to editors

  • The report provides information on the research carried out under a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) at UK centres between April 2006 and March 2007. 
  • Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, research using human embryos must be licensed by the HFEA. Each research project must be licensed separately and each must pass the tests  for necessity and desirability for its intended purpose as set out in the Act.
  • The HFEA is the independent regulator for IVF treatment and embryo research. Our role is to protect patients and the public interest, to drive improvement in the treatment and research sectors and to  provide information to the public and policymakers about treatment and research.
  • The HFEA was set up in August 1991 as part of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.  The HFEA's principal tasks are to license and monitor clinics that carry out in vitro fertilisation (IVF),  donor insemination (DI) and human embryo research. The HFEA also regulates the storage of gametes (eggs and sperm) and embryos.

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Page last updated: 11 March 2009

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