University of Missouri researchers have discovered a way that could reduce the costs of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in humans. Parents seeking to have children through IVF spend an estimated $12,000 to $15,000 per session plus the cost of medications that average between $3,000 and $5,000.

University of Missouri hopes pigs revolutionize human IVF treatments

Animal sciences professor Michael Roberts says his colleagues have been trying to improve how stem cells grow in piglets. During their attempts, the researchers found a method using a special liquid that quadruples the speed and efficiency to develop embryos.

“It was a serendipitous discovery, really,” says Roberts. “Generally, there are multiple steps to producing viable embryos that we can then implant in pigs and cows involved in our research; however, it’s costly and sometimes yields very little return. We were seeking a way to do that more efficiently and stumbled upon a method that may have implications in human fertility clinics as well. The idea is it would be safer for the woman, it would be cheaper and it might even achieve a better success rate.”

In IVF involving pigs, scientists first extract eggs from female pigs as well as the “nurse” cells that surround them and place them in a chemical environment designed to mature the eggs. The eggs are fertilized and are allowed to develop for six days. They are then transferred back into a female pig with the hope of achieving a successful pregnancy and healthy piglets.

“The chance of generating a successful piglet after all those steps is very low; only 1-2% of the original oocytes make it that far,” Roberts said. “Normally, researchers overcome this low success rate by implanting large numbers of embryos, but that takes a lot of time and money.”

In one study, the team analyzed various special growth factors used when culturing pig stem cells and added two others. They found that this combination, when added with an insulin-like growth factor created the special fluid environment the eggs needed to become competent for fertilization and further development to embryos that could provide a successful pregnancy.

“It improved every aspect of the whole process and almost doubled the efficiency of oocyte maturation,” Roberts says. “Whenever you’re doing science, you’d like to think you’re doing something that could be useful. When we started it wasn’t to improve fertility IVF in women, it was to just get better oocytes in pigs. Now it’s possible that FLI medium could become important in bovine embryo work and possibly even help with human IVF.”

The university has applied for a patent to encourage commercialization of the new method.