New Discovery About Fertilization

scott purcell

New Discovery About Fertilization

The team here at the Reproductive Medicine and Surgery Center of Virginia maintains a diligent finger on the pulse of recent reproductive and fertility-oriented research. Recently, we feel especially connected to a study published by the UVA School of Medicine, authored by one of our own embryology Lab Director, Dr. Scott Purcell.

UVA Study Authored by Embryologist Dr. Scott Purcell Revealed Surprise Information About Sperm & Egg

Dr. Purcell co-authored a study conducted at the University of Virginia School of Medicine, which resulted in surprise findings. That’s one of the fantastic things about science; studies are designed with a hypothesis in mind, but often turn out to reveal a range of unexpected findings and conclusions.

In this case, Dr. Purcell and the rest of the UVA team learned new information about how a sperm and egg fuse together during the fertilization process.

In addition to supporting further fertility treatment research, and potentially increasing the chances of fertility treatment success, researchers believe what they learned may also lead to more rapid advancement in male contraception options.

UVA researcher Kodi Ravichandran, Ph.D. states that the standard, basic biologic understandings of fertilization have been sperm oriented – it’s the sperm’s sole job to find the egg and break through the outer membrane. This study, however, made it, “…very clear that it is a dynamic process where both the sperm and egg are equally and actively involved in the ultimate biological goal of achieving fertilization.”

Sperm PS May Mean “Life,” Rather Than “Death”

In most cells, the protein phosphatidylserine (PS) is held inside a cell until that cell begins to die, at which point PS moves to the exterior of the cell. This is the cell’s signal to the body that it’s time for removal and recycling, so a new cell can regenerate.

In sperm, however, it appears that exposed PS does not signify cell death at all. Rather, mature, healthy sperm intentionally have PS on the exterior of their membrane, and it reacts very positively with specialized “protein partners” on the egg membrane. The egg’s partner proteins actively engage PS, initiating the fertilization process.

This is important information when diagnosing infertility – and gives us a new way to look at sperm and egg health.

For example, science may be able to promote PS presence on otherwise healthy sperm cells to promote fertilization. Similarly, they may be able to isolate the most healthy sperm cells in a sperm sample – the ones with adequate PS levels –using those for IUI and/or IVF with potentially better results.

No PS Could Mean an Exciting Future for Male Birth Control

The flip side of this equation is that medical researchers may be able to work with this new information to create viable male contraception.

Other than condoms, the bulk of contraception responsibility often falls on women – frequently requiring the use of hormone therapy or invasive products. These options can have serious side effects on a woman’s physical and emotional wellbeing. So, the idea that science may be able to find a way to interact with sperm and their PS cells, preventing PS cells from being present when men are trying NOT to conceive a child, is revolutionary.

Again, Ravichandran reports, “We blocked phosphatidylserine by three or four different ways [in lab dishes], and we are pleasantly surprised how well it blocks sperm-egg fusion.” Future studies are being set up to evaluate strategies for masking PS proteins, which would help to prevent fertilization.

We are so proud of our in-house embryologist, Scott Purcell, and the rest of the U of VA School of Medicine Research team, and we wish them good luck as they continue putting these surprising and inspiring findings to work in future studies.

Interested in getting to the heart of your infertility diagnosis so you benefit from customized fertility treatments? Schedule a consultation with us here at the Reproductive Medicine and Surgery Center of Virginia. Our physicians are the movers and the shakers in the fertility treatment research world.

You can read the entire study here.

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