Fighting for improved embryo health.
*Article by Valerina Changarathil, Sunday Mail. Photo by Tait Schmaal.
The heartbreak of multiple miscarriages and her own challenges with starting a family have led Dr Kylie Dunning down the pathway that could result in a world-first breakthrough in helping successful pregnancies through in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
Her research into a new non-invasive way to check the health of embryos using just light — before they are implanted — has won critical funding from The Hospital Research Foundation.
“For the past 10 years, I have worked in IVF to understand what makes a healthy baby and driven by the need to reduce the grief that comes with miscarriage,” Dr Dunning said.
“One of the greatest challenges of IVF today is identifying healthy embryos.
“The gold standard for that today requires taking a small number of cells from the embryo (known as biopsy), an invasive procedure, and then sequencing the DNA to confirm the embryo has the right number of chromosomes, a process known as pre-implantation genetic screening.”
PGA screening is usually done to assess aneuploidy, or the presence of cells with the wrong number of chromosomes, an example of which is Down’s syndrome.
Embryos which have the wrong number of chromosomes usually fail to implant, or can result in a miscarriage early in pregnancy.
“We also know the embryo has some normal cells and some aneuploid cells,” Dr Dunning said.
“With my team we are developing technology that uses just light to more accurately assess the full health of the embryo.”
In her research so far , Dr Dunning has used autoflourescence (natural emission of light by biological structures) and highly-sensitive cameras — used usually in astronomy — to measure the light reflected by the cells within the embryo to measure the level of glow emitted by the cells.
“All cells glow, but we can measure specific molecules. Abnormal cells would emit a different glow,” she said.
She is hopeful her revolutionary technology, currently in the preclinical stage, will one day help to pick the best embryos for transfer, saving money and heartache for hopeful parents.
The $406,750 mid-career fellowship grant from THRF will apply her research to human cells over the next three years.
She is one of 16 recipients who received a total of $5.7 million from THRF to advance medical research in SA.