Estonian and Spanish scientists discover a simple way to improve infertility treatment

Scientists from Estonia and Spain have published a study in Human Reproduction, a top journal in the field, that can benefit the couples who have experienced repeated IVF failure.

In 2017, more than 2,800 in vitro fertilisation (IVF) procedures were carried out in Estonia, resulting in the birth of 430 babies, which accounts for 3% of all births.

However, at 15%, the success rate of IVF is low, caused by problems in several stages of the treatment. One of such stages is embryo implantation, which marks the beginning of the pregnancy. If the embryo is transferred into the uterus on the wrong day, even the best embryos cannot overcome this, resulting in a negative pregnancy test.

The task of the infertility treatment specialist is to recommend the best treatment for each patient. Female infertility can be caused by problems with endometrial (the inner uterine lining) receptivity. While in natural conception the developing embryo can “sit and wait” until the endometrium matures to peak receptivity, in IVF treatment it is of utmost importance to transfer the embryo on the correct day to increase the chances of pregnancy.

Adjusting the time of the embryo transfer

Different methods are used to assess endometrial receptivity, the most accurate of which is a test measuring the expression patterns of different genes in an endometrial biopsy. For this, a minimally invasive endometrial biopsy is taken in the cycle preceding the IVF cycle on the day the endometrium is supposedly the most receptive. Analysis of the expression patterns of specific marker genes provides vital information to decide whether the “right genes are expressed at the right time”. If needed, the time of the embryo transfer is adjusted, providing an example of precision medicine in infertility treatment.

The study by Estonian and Spanish scientists, published in Human Reproduction, a leading journal in the field of reproductive medicine, is based on the fact that the inner uterine lining consists of several different cell types. The novelty of the study lies in the fact that previous studies have not considered the effect of cell type proportions on endometrial gene expression profiles. This novel approach makes gene expression profile analysis more specific, thus also improving the performance of tests based on gene expression patterns.

The study was a natural progression to the earlier work of the research group based in the Estonian town of Tartu, which allows to improve IVF efficiency.

“It is common knowledge that the inner uterine lining includes different cell types; however, all the previous studies have consistently ignored this fact. Our work shows how to account for this variability in cellular composition, and thus considerably improve the accuracy of biomarker discovery,” Marina Suhorutšenko, the first author of the paper and a PhD student at the Institute of Clinical Medicine, University of Tartu, said in a statement.

In the clinical setting, only the whole tissue gene expression profile is usually analysed, as analysing cellular fractions separately is labour-intensive and expensive. “We have developed a pipeline that allows to skip this step, and instead uses a different data analysis approach to improve the accuracy without extra costs,” Suhorutšenko added.

The study results in a new endometrial receptivity test

Dr Triin Laisk, a research fellow at the Estonian Genome Centre, who coordinated the data analysis of the study, said the confounding effect of biopsy cellular composition has been largely ignored in the past, and not only in the field of reproductive medicine. “By taking it into account, we can decrease the amount of random and false positive findings, and eventually improve our knowledge on the biology behind different conditions, as well as facilitate the discovery of novel biomarkers,” she said.

The results of the study have immediate practical value, and the research team is currently working on how to integrate these findings into a genetic test that is used in infertility treatment clinics to select the best day for embryo transfer. The Tartu-based Competence Centre on Health Technologies, where the study was carried out, has developed an endometrial receptivity test called beREADY.

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The images are illustrative (Pexels).

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About the author: Silver Tambur

Silver Tambur is the cofounder and Editor-in-Chief of Estonian World. He has previously studied journalism at the University of Tartu, and Politics & Society at the Birkbeck College, University of London. Silver has been the editor at the Estonian Public Broadcasting’s news service in English, as well as contributing for the Business Sense magazine in the UK, Deutsche Welle and Radio New Zealand. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can write to Silver at silver@estonianworld.com.