London - Women facing infertility have been given new hope after British scientists managed to grow human eggs in a laboratory for the first time.
The researchers were able to grow the eggs from immature cells taken from human ovarian tissue – something that has only been achieved in mice before.
The technique paves the way for harvesting thousands of eggs from a small piece of ovarian tissue. Existing techniques yield only a small number. These eggs, once grown to maturity, could be used in IVF – or frozen to be used at a later date.
Beneficiaries could include cancer patients who want to preserve their fertility, women facing an early menopause, or those who want to delay having children.
The technique has been pioneered by Professor Evelyn Telfer and colleagues at Edinburgh University. They removed egg cells at their earliest stage of development and grew them to the point at which they were ready for fertilisation.
The study – published in the Molecular Human Reproduction journal – represents the first time a human egg has been developed in the laboratory from earliest stage to full maturity.
The eggs were not fertilised to create embryos – but the research is seen as a "proof of concept" which will lead to further advances.
Professor Telfer, of the university’s school of biological sciences, said: "Being able to fully develop human eggs in the lab could widen the scope of available fertility treatments".
The researchers used immature ovarian tissue taken from biopsies on 10 women aged between 25 and 39 having Caesarean sections.
About 87 follicles – tissue containing immature eggs – were developed. Of these nine eggs were grown.
Further research will be necessary to see if the eggs can be used to grow human embryos.
Currently, women facing cancer treatment – which can destroy fertility – have two options.
They can have their eggs stimulated with daily hormone injections, but this delays cancer treatment for two or three months. The other option sees ovarian tissue removed and reimplanted after treatment.
This has led to several successful births around the world, including one in the UK. But it poses the risk of reintroducing cancerous cells from parts of the body which may be hidden in ovarian tissue.
With the new technique, immature eggs recovered from patients’ ovarian tissue can be taken without any delay.
Professor Telfer told the Daily Mail: "This is a huge advance in basic science but it also has potential practical applications.
"If our technique is refined, and we can show that these eggs are healthy, we could use it to produce embryos.
"Some young women do not relish the idea of having an ovarian tissue transplant so this gives us more options for fertility preservation or restoration."
Professor Telfer said the treatment could have wider uses, adding: "In theory you could get a lot more eggs than you get through hormonal stimulation, and you would not have to go through multiple cycles.
"It could be an alternative to conventional IVF."