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Embryo research project summaries

On this page you will find summaries of embryo research projects taking place in the UK. 

Derivation of human embryonic stem cell lines from embryos created from clinically unused eggs or abnormally fertilised embryos

St Mary's Hospital and University of Manchester  

This project is looking at how to extract human embryonic stem cells from embryos. This project involves taking cells from human embryos and growing the cells so that they can form an embryonic stem cell line (defined as 3 million cells or more). The researchers will be testing the stem cells to assess their suitability for use in treating disease.

They will also be studying what genes are expressed in cells lines, and some of the embryos or cells taken from embryos, to gain basic understanding of how cells and embryos develop. This work will ultimately benefit IVF treatments by increasing our understanding of human embryo development. 

Biochemistry of early human embryos

Hull IVF Unit

We know very little about the processes that form a human embryo and why some embryos turn out to be healthier than others. The purpose of this work is to carry out a detailed examination of the development of the early human embryo, particularly how it generates the energy it needs to grow. This knowledge will help optimise embryo culture and transfer procedures to enhance IVF success rates.

A second area of increasing importance is how the environment in which early development occurs can influence the long-term health of the babies born. For example, a woman’s body weight affects the quality of her eggs and embryos; a detailed understanding of which could increase the chances of a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby.

The aims of this research are:

  1. To devise a simple, reliable method for embryo selection;
  2. to discover whether the preconception environment, including maternal body weight can affect the health of eggs and early embryos.

This information will enable couples trying for a baby naturally or through IVF to be provided with sound preconception advice. The research uses highly sensitive laboratory tests, most of which are non-invasive, to study the biochemistry of individual human embryos, donated to research after treatment.

The data can then be related to the ability of the embryos to develop successfully in culture. Pilot work will be carried out in the laboratory on animal embryos to confirm the approaches are feasible before conducting this essential research on spare human embryos.

The data will provide reassurance that a non-invasive test to select single embryos for transfer is safe and effective such that clinical trials could safely be undertaken and to demonstrate the importance of the pre-conception environment in ensuring the health of embryos conceived via IVF, and the short and long-term health of the babies.

Human egg and sperm interaction and signalling - Centre for Human Reproductive Science

University of Birmingham

During fertilisation, the sperm penetrates the surrounding of the egg and fuses with the egg which leads to an embryo forming. If fertilisation fails an embryo does not form. This project examines both scenarios in detail. The results of the project could show how sperm and eggs may talk to each other and enable understanding of how these things go wrong and may cause infertility, but also to devise better future fertility treatments, alongside an understanding of their safety.

In this project imaging (microscopy) techniques will be used to examine in detail the events occurring as human sperm and eggs interact. Genetic technologies will also be used to assess whether any embryos formed are ‘normal’ or would have potential problems that may, for instance, cause miscarriage. This type of research may also generate new contraceptives.

Towards improving assisted reproductive technologies for the treatment of infertility and prevention of disease

Francis Crick Institute in collaboration with Newcastle University

The focus of this project is to find ways to prevent transmission of mitochondrial DNA disease to improve outcomes of assisted reproductive technology for the treatment of infertility.

The three main aims of this research are:

  1. Develop new clinical treatments to minimise transmission of mitochondrial DNA mutations (change in genes) from a mother to her child,
  2. Improve the outcome of infertility treatments by studying cellular and molecular events that occur before the embryo is implanted and
  3. Investigate how chromosomal abnormalities in eggs and embryos arise, to understand what makes eggs of older women more likely to have chromosomal abnormalities.

The foundation of primordial germ cells in humans

The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge

This project involves studying precursors to egg and sperm cells called primordial germ cells. These cells are one of the earliest cells that are made during embryo development. Errors in the formation of primordial germ cells may contribute to human infertility and germ cell tumours. The aim of this project is to learn about how primordial germ cells are made, to elicit methods to generate them and possibly eggs or sperm from stem cells.

To examine concordance and mosaicism in eggs and embryos

CARE Nottingham

The Chromosome number in egg cells will be compared with the chromosome number of a cell in the day three embryo and then the chromosome number of a cell in the day three embryo will be compared with the chromosome number of cells in a blastocyst (an embryo that develops on day five or six).

The chromosome number of cells in three different areas of the blastocyst will be compared, to look at the consistency of chromosomes within the same embryo. This research will allow us to understand if removing cells from eggs or embryos or blastocysts is an accurate way of predicting the chromosome status of the embryo as a whole.

Developing criteria for estimating quality of stem cells derived from human embryos

Guys Hospital, London

Stem cells are unique cell populations that can copy themselves exactly and turn into new cell types (such as muscle or brain cells). Stem cells can be obtained at the early stages of embryo development; these cells are called human embryonic stem cells (hESC).

They also could be used in research to develop drugs to treat serious diseases, or to repair organs following a stroke or heart attack. Although there is a lot of hype around stem cells their potential is not fully realised yet. The project involves measuring and observing the way stem cells copy each other so that researchers can define norms and standardise protocols that would assure quality and assurance in the use of stem cells. The hESCs are programmed to turn into a specific cell type, so the researchers will try to figure out how to know what kind of cell a hESC will turn into.

Development of a model to study implantation in the human

Oxford Fertility

The purpose of this project is to discover more about the processes that occur during early embryo development and when an embryo implants. The researchers are examining the process of implantation to find out how the presence of an embryo is picked up by the mother. They will also investigate interactions between the embryo and a structure in the uterus called the endometrium where implantation takes place. This research will help clinics to select the best embryos for transfer to the womb and increase chances of successful implantation.

In vitro development and implantation of normal human preimplantation embryos and comparison with uni- or polypronucleate pre-embryos

University of Manchester and St Mary’s Hospital 

This project involves studying early human embryo development. The researchers want to find out what factors contribute to normal embryo development, and what happens when development goes wrong. They will be assessing the impact of sperm DNA damage and factors which might affect embryo development and implantation into the womb, including the culture environment and the effect of freezing embryos.

It is necessary to use human embryos for this research as although important information has come from studies of animal embryos, they develop differently to human embryos. 

Derivation of pluripotent human embryo cell lines

Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research University of Cambridge

Embryonic stem (ES) cells were first identified in mouse embryos in 1981. Cells similar to ES cells can be made by manipulating differentiated cells (for example skin or nerve cells) to make ‘induced pluripotent cells’ (iPS) cells.

ES and iPS cells have the unique ability to turn into any tissue in the body. ES and iPS cells can now also be obtained from human embryos and adult tissues. However, human stem cells are not as consistent and reliable as mouse stem cells. In this project, human and mouse embryos are compared with the aim of developing ways to improve human ES cells so that they’re easier to grow and can differentiate into wider range of tissues.

Mitochondrial DNA as a prognosticator for embryo viability

CARE Nottingham

Mitochondria are small structures found in cells and are essential for cells to function. An important part of their activity is to produce the cell’s energy. Mitochondria contain DNA called mitochondrial DNA. Different cells contain different amounts of mitochondria depending on the size of the cell and its energy needs. Egg cells contain a high number of mitochondria.

Embryos inherit mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA exclusively from the egg cell. This project is looking at how mitochondrial DNA is distributed in the early embryo and if their number is related to chromosomal abnormalities.

Derivation of stem cells from human embryos: the development of human embryonic stem cell cultures, characterisation of factors necessary for maintaining pluripotency and specific differentiation towards transplantable tissues

The Francis Crick Institute at Mill Hill

This research is concerned with early human embryo development. It is hoped that the results of these studies will benefit medical knowledge in a number of important ways.

Firstly, by improving understanding of the conditions that are important for growing human preimplantation embryos in a petri dish. These insights can hopefully lead to improvements in the treatment of infertility.

Secondly, by improving our understanding of how early human embryo cells become more specialised during early development. The first critical step in this process is when a small subset of cells are set aside to eventually form the foetus, whilst another subset of early cells differ in their fate to become the placenta (which supports the development of the foetus throughout the pregnancy). We are interested in how these specialisation events occur and are regulated before implantation. Understanding the genes that are essential for this first important specialisation process could provide insight into some causes of pregnancy failures and birth defects. Understanding this important switch in cell fate may also provide a deeper understanding of stem cell formation.

Lastly by developing stem cell lines that can be taken out of the embryo and multiplied in the laboratory for many years. This can help to study and better understand devastating human diseases at the cellular level in the laboratory and potentially develop new drug treatments.

Filming of human implantation in vitro

The Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge

A high proportion of natural abortions occur because of developmental failure as the embryo implants into womb. To avoid such failures in the IVF clinic, it would be helpful to know what an embryo must achieve during the initial days when it is placed in the mother’s womb. This project involves culturing embryos in an in vitro (artificial) environment that has been shown to permit the correct development of an embryo until day 13.

For the first-time this allows researchers to study human embryo development from day 7 to day 13, a period that normally cannot be seen. This research will help in understanding the causes underlying early pregnancy loss.

Investigation into the role of sperm PLCzeta in human egg activation

Cardiff University School of Biosciences

At fertilisation, the sperm fuses with the egg and sends a calcium signal to trigger it to begin development. Without this signal, the process of fertilisation is not successful and an embryo cannot be made. In a proportion of IVF and ICSI treatments it appears that the egg fails to fertilise because of a lack of this activating calcium signal.

Previous research in mouse eggs has shown that sperm contain a protein, referred to as PLCzeta, which enters the egg during fusion and triggers the calcium changes that lead to egg activation and embryo development. We now want to extend some of these studies to human eggs.

In this project, human eggs that have failed to fertilise during IVF treatment cycles will be injected with the PLCzeta protein to see how effective it is in stimulating the calcium changes that cause egg activation. We will compare the effectiveness of PLCzeta protein with certain chemicals that have been used by some clinics to stimulate calcium changes in human eggs that have failed to activate after ICSI treatment.

This work could provide important information on how the sperm normally triggers development during human fertilisation. It may help explain why some eggs fail to fertilise after procedures such as ICSI, and it would offer new ways to overcome such fertilisation failure.

Improving methods for preimplantation genetic diagnosis of inherited genetic disease and predicting embryo quality

Guys Hospital, London

This project is testing a technique involving the splitting of embryos. If successful, it could be possible to split one embryo into two, both of which will have the same genetic information. Embryos for research can be hard to obtain so by being able to split one, it reduces the number of embryos used and avoids genetic background bias.

Artificial egg activation and egg/embryo movements as early indicators of embryo quality

Oxford Fertility

At fertilisation, the sperm activates the egg to begin development in a process called egg activation. A protein called PLCzeta is important in this process. If there is not adequate PLCzeta then the egg may not be successfully fertilised. Men without adequate PLCzeta may therefore be infertile. This project involves using a synthetic version of PLCzeta created in a lab and seeing if it can be used for fertilsation where there are low levels of natural PLCzeta.

The second part of this project involves using high-frequency time lapse filing to observe the tiny movements that take place in an egg during the first few hours after activation. These, and other experiments on eggs and very early stage embryos, will increase our knowledge of the processes that occur around fertilisation. In the future, the synthetic PLCzeta could be used to help in cases where there are egg activation problems, and use the time lapse technique to predict which embryos are healthier for transfer in IVF.

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Review date: 5 October 2019