When I woke up automatically at 2:30 am this morning, I wasn’t surprised. The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was scheduled to be announced at that time and, as a member of the Office of Communication and Public Affairs, I was on call to leap up and race to the office if a School of Medicine faculty member got the nod. As it was, I got to go back to sleep – but not before I saw that the winner was British scientist Robert G. Edwards, the pioneer of the in vitro fertilization technique that has allowed millions of infertile couples to have children.
I was pleased by the news because I’ve been thinking about the importance of IVF recently. Stanford researcher Renee Reijo Pera, PhD, published a study on Sunday in Nature Biotechnology showing how it’s possible to select with more than 90 percent accuracy those IVF embryos that will go on to develop into a hollow ball of cells called a blastocyst. The critical measurements can be taken within the first two days of fertilization, and may significantly increase the chances that an implanted embryo will result in a successful pregnancy.
The research is important not just for IVF techniques, but for understanding the very basics of human development, says Reijo Pera, who directs Stanford’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education at Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine:
Until recently, we’ve had so little knowledge about the basic science of our development [...] In mice, about 80 to 90 percent of embryos develop to the blastocyst stage. In humans, it’s about 30 percent. In addition, about one in 100 mouse embryos are chromosomally abnormal, versus about seven out of 10 human embryos. That’s why human studies like these are so important. Women, their families and their physicians want to increase the chances of having one healthy baby and avoid high-risk pregnancies, miscarriages or other adverse maternal and fetal outcomes. It’s truly a women’s health issue that affects the broader family.
The research highlights the importance of studying human embryos, which currently cannot be supported by federal funds. (Every year since 1996, Congress has approved a provision known as the Dicky-Wicker amendment that prohibits the use of federal funds for research in which a human embryo is destroyed – even ones that would otherwise be discarded.) It was supported instead by a generous anonymous donor, the March of Dimes and the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.